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If This Goes On: Healthcare “Reform”

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This is where things could go if they go very, very wrong for the American people — not quite the wrongest. The worst case, as usual, is

nuke

And, as a Cold War kid, that image and possible end is always with me. Yep, we could end up eating squirrels and burying half our kids before they turn five, just like the old days. Traveling in nomadic packs. Living the Mad Max life until the gasoline runs out, then just running around in silly overdone armor hammered out of crap dug out of junkyards because it’s a lot easier than trying to find iron ore and making new stuff now that civilization has dug up all the easy to find metal deposits.

(deep breath)

BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M HERE TO TALK ABOUT, I said to myself.

I’m talking about, what if this health care reform deform sets a trend? This massive wealth distribution to the already very wealthy that slashes Medicaid to the bone and reinstalls lifetime and yearly coverage caps for care and calls for pre-existing condition rate hikes that will price cancer survivors and people with genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia and, you know, old people right out of coverage altogether?

What if this “American Health Care Act (AHCA) is just the beginning? (By the way, GOP? I know you’re all on this “learning and education and expertise are bad” jag, but in American English “healthcare” is commonly ONE FREAKIN WORD SERIOUSLY YOU’RE THE ONES TELLING EVERYONE TO SPEAK ENGLISH? Learn to speak and write English, but not too well or everyone will think you’re one of those EVIL EDUCATED SMART PEOPLE AIEE OH GOD RUN BEFORE IT INFECTS YOU WITH LEARNING.)

But I digress. Again. Unfortunately I’m really good at that.

What if this AHCA passes, and sets a trend, and things just keep going that “if you wanted to be healthy you’d have had sense enough to pick wealthy parents” way for a few decades? How bad could it get?

Let’s imagine. Because that’s my business.

But let’s not imagine this healthcare deform will be alone. No, it will come with other things that are developing in our society. Let’s look.

So. Boom. It passes. Very wealthy people enjoy the windfall of anywhere from six hundred billion to a trillion dollars collectively. Sockaroonie, right into the hands of people who make more than a quarter million a year, but mostly into the hands of people who make a million or more a year. And more for billionaires than for you paltry millionaires.

They squirrel a bunch of it away into accounts in the Caymans and elsewhere (I hear Russia is enjoying a vogue in certain bad-hair-tiny-handed circles for some reason).

They open some new factories in China because First Lady Ivanka (is it Co-First Lady? First Lady of Daddy’s Heart? It’s so hard to keep track) has some there and she says it’s a great place to do business, not like that annoying USA where she’d rather drop dead than have a product made. And elsewhere, wherever the labor is cheap.

They invest some at home, though, too. Building some factories, but soon enough robots can build them, not people. So, mostly buying robots from overseas. But when they build a steel mill or an automobile factory or a social media farm to send out #MAGA tweets or whatever in the USA, rest assured they’ll need dozens of people to run a really enormous factory. Mostly fixing robots and tweaking their programs. It might take a little while to get the robot fixing robots on line, like an extra generation.

The robots aren’t quite there yet, in many professions. But we’re getting there fast.

When the people who are babies now go out to find jobs — and there may not be quite as many of them as we thought, the AHCA and its successors may well redistribute more wealth upward with bigger and better cuts and outright elimination of things like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, EBT/Food Stamps, and so forth, which means higher infant mortality and more kids who die before adulthood — they may find robots doing them.

And not just the poor kids. The less poor kids, the scions of the dying middle class and the bottom of the upper class, the ones making only a paltry quarter million a year, may find their jobs being done by robots as well. It’s easy to imagine robots digging ditches and selling fries, but they can also order supplies and pay bills and manage expenses and plan advertising campaigns and handle routine legal cases and do surgery and repair cars and dispense prescribed medications.

They’re close to that today. In a generation they’ll be able to do it. Once robots are popular enough, the economy of scale kicks in as it is right now with solar and wind power, and prices drop precipitously, and then everyone will want robot workers and nobody will want humans with their messy bathroom breaks and headaches and needing to attend funerals and weddings and wanting retirement funds and asking for raises because the kid needs braces.

So not only will the money be for the top 1%, but the jobs and the healthcare will be for the top 1%. If you’re really lucky. Maybe all those things will be for the top .1%.

And everyone else?

Well, the ones with the money and the jobs and the healthcare will have to figure out what to do with you.

Maybe human servants will come into vogue and we can all get jobs serving the very rich for room and board and maybe some basic medical care. But probably not for cancer or disability or chronic illness. Servants are cheap. When one goes bad, you throw it away and get another one.

Because now life is cheap, and all the gains of society are routed into the pockets of the megawealthy, and all the cool stuff the robots make goes to them as well.

And if you don’t like it? Robots can make more than cool stuff. They can make war as well. Without risking any precious rich skin. Even the military, traditional route out of poverty, can be handled by robots and very, very few humans indeed.

There are a few million more people who can do without healthcare — or at least, who will have to, to free up some more money to give away to the already very wealthy.

Remember, this is a worst case imagining. Things might turn out better than this. But for that to happen, we’re going to have to fight for it. Hopefully figuratively, with words and protests and votes and candidates who can imagine a better purpose for our society than slashing healthcare for half of the nation in order to put a trillion dollars into the pockets of billionaires.

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People Kibble: SciFi News 2033

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US in Ottawa Newsletter
January 22, 2033
Patrick Chowdhury Melendez
 
President Trump Jr. “Fights Hunger” With People Kibble
 
Newly inaugurated President Donald Trump Jr. announced a USA-wide anti-hunger program from the so-called “press vault” in Trump Tower in NYC (the de facto White House since 2021) at 5:15 this morning.
Press coverage was limited to fifteen reporters representing the “Gang of Seven” Trump regime-approved media organizations. A source within Trump Tower confirmed that those reporters were brought into the tower during the inauguration for sequestration and “extreme vetting.”
The source also stated the initial number of reporters admitted was sixteen, two per media org. The sixteenth reporter did not appear in footage of the press conference released by Vice President (and former President) Eric Trump. The whereabouts of that reporter are unknown. US in Ottawa staff and other expatriate press speculate that Reporter Sixteen may be Miles DeGuzmen of the popular morning Fox News “Trumping the World” segment, which has been guest-hosted by Sean Spicer since January 19th.
Trump Jr.’s “anti-hunger” program, “Making Americans Healthy,” follows two years of widespread simmering protest and riots in the wake of President Eric Trump’s 2031 federal-level outlawing of the last state-level food stamp, EBT, and WIC legacy programs. Federal welfare programs, including food and financial assistance, were ended in 2023.
Riots were especially intense in spring of 2032 following the revelation of the February malnutrition deaths of Mrs. Jackie Pillman of Little Rock, Arkansas and her kindergarten-age twins, Steven and Stephenie. The President announced that he was “working on a solution” in his Thanksgiving day address to the nation that year. He also vowed to “plug news leaks” in his remarks, thought to be a reference to the anonymous bloggers who produced the viral stories of the Pillman deaths. No arrests were ever announced, though some night disappearances of suspects were rumored in following months.
“Making Americans Healthy” relies on National Guard detachments (formally placed under federal control in 2021), which are directed to distribute one fifty pound bag of UNGR (Universal Nutrition Granular Recipe, a soy and peanut based, vitamin-enriched food dubbed “Purina Human Chow” in expatriate media) to any citizen who reports in person with two approved forms of federal identification to a distribution point on the 5th and 20th of each month.
“UNGR is a terrific food that provides everything adults and children need to be healthy and well-fed,” President Trump Jr. said in the released presser footage. “The taste is a bit boring, sure. I’ve tried it. But if people are hungry, they’ll come and get it, and they’ll be thankful for it. If they don’t like the taste, great. Maybe they’ll get off their asses and get jobs. There are so many jobs that the CEOs of factories and construction companies come to me every day begging me to find them workers.”
Independent economic analysts in the EU and India estimate actual US employment at 25-30%, or 60-65% if the chronically underemployed are included. US figures, released by law exclusively by press release from the Oval Office since 2024, place US unemployment at a radically unlikely 2.2%.

A Billionaire Is Mad That Poor Kids Get Free Sandwiches

…so I wrote a little tweetstorm about that.

Sorry about the repeated tweet at the end. Twitter threads are formed by replying to yourself, and now twitter displays the tweet each one is replying to for context… except to make a readable thread like this it means you now have to insert ONLY EVERY OTHER TWEET if you want each tweet to appear only once.

And of course I had to have an odd singleton tweet at the end because, apparently, I like to stir up trouble.

Which, really, is what a writer’s job is.

I could have gone into extra detail between tweets explaining myself further, but I think the tweets speak for themselves and I’d just be beating each point to death.

Plus, if anyone has questions or additions or comments there’s always the… um… comments here. 🙂

Flash Fiction: Under Ashes

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“Anything worth a damn is made on a coast and ships from a coast. By air or sea.”

That’s what the president said. At least, it’s what was reported on the shadow web that snakes through the makeshift network of “smart” stoves and washing machines and automobiles (if you can afford them!) and can openers and athletic shoes and disposable razors and anything else with WiFi and an app.

The authorized news, on the other hand, ran a piece on how the economy was so gloriously rampant and virile that airlines have formally discontinued coach and business class seating, leaving nothing but a spacious expanse of first class and super luxury class seating in their cavernous airliners.

The anchorbot’s perfect on-air voice floated like a cloud behind the image of an iron-haired general, her chest a solid plastron of stars and ribbons like a compacted galaxy. Her feet were up on an ottoman and a masseusebot worked the suspension bridge of corded tendons in her neck with eight-fingered silicone hands.

Then, as the anchorbot droned a lulling narrative bridge, a puffy gilded teen cherub sat with a megaplatinum record from Motherland Records on a hefty wood base with a tall glass cover occupying a seat of it own beside her. A stewbot cracked the claws of a four pound lobster with deft blurs of a little brass gavel and slid the laden tray before the starlet who tucked into the chow with a flood of melted butter.

Finally, the anchorbot burbling upbeat and drawing to a conclusion, the vid showed a man in an immaculate dark suit and bright tie. The men are always first or last, symbolic frames of the stream of words and images, carrying with them weight and importance, tangibility. The lights and vids of an array of three monitors suspended from the ceiling (the “overhead” on an airplane, is it called?) flickered gem-reflections off the heavy steel rims of harsh six-angled eyeglasses. His hair was a blond cap, waxed down like a helmet. Sideburns trimmed to stilettos stabbed the angles of his jaw in the new style I can’t get used to. A trackball in each hand, he Does Important Things for the cameras.

The images fade to the state news logo and the anchorbot climaxes and relaxes into a commercial.

We all have televisions so we can see how good things are. We may not have hot water, or even running water. We only have electricity part-time. I can’t afford the simplest drugs to treat my pre-diabetes or even aspirin for my arthritis half the time. I set snares for squirrels or I’d have nothing to go with the endless lumps of hard bread (gotta soak it in a bowl of water to eat it) and cheese the Army hands out to keep us from starving or rioting or both.

But the state provides televisions. A new one every Christmas, even if you forget to bring them the old one to trade in.

We’re doing great, dammit. We’re finally great again. The television tells us so. All the biggest world powers respect us they way they should, the announcerbots say.

Just outside the city line – I can see it from the kitchen table in this two room shack I’m blessed to share with just two other bachelors – a bot crew and one Christ of a huge fanged combine-thing, driverless and nameless, chews up the old interstate highway and loads the bits into an endless stream of self-driving dumptrucks that take the blacktop south to do God knows what with it. Thin dribs and drabs of snow float through the scene like in a snow globe, and icicles hang from the noses of the workbots. They don’t care, of course.

I hear blacktop is made from oil. Maybe they’re squeezing the oil back out of it to ship to India or China or Brazil. Those places are hungry for oil and any other resources they can get their hands on, the shadow web whispers from the WiFi toilet when I crap. Who knows if it’s true. The television doesn’t say a word about that.

But the stock market is up again, and the Air Force says Fallujah will fall again soon.

There’s going to be a celebration when it falls, next month in DC. The commercial for it is on again. It has been playing twice an hour since spring.

The commercial ends and my gaze falls on the faded cap hanging on its nail across from the window. The cap is gray now, like my hair before it fell out, but you can still see the crimson fire peek out of the deep folds of the seams like ember under ashes.

I wish I could be in DC for the celebration. To wear the cap again, pump my fist in the air and holler again. Full of power, strong like a bear. Those were the days.

But the highway has gone away, and I’m not much for walking anymore. Nobody I know is.

END

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page, 02 January 2017. My patrons get to see a lot of things early, and can get free ebooks and even paperbacks! Come help me get the hell out of this damned trailer park and into a place where I can have even a small writing office and maybe even write ALL THE TIME. Well, almost all the time. I do have kids and a wife and a cat to think of as well.)

My Patreon Patrons Are Getting A Serial…

…but you can, too! The first installment will be posted here as well as there. Subsequent installments of Broken Rice will be patron-exclusive on Patreon first, but will also appear in ebook form after a short delay! I explain it all over on my Patreon page — but before you click the link, please enjoy the cover art for Broken Rice below. I really enjoyed making it (even if some moments were kind of a pain in the butt) and I’m really pleased with how it came out. 🙂

Broken Rice cover

 

13 Word Story: In The Kingdom Of The Sterile, The Genehacker Is King

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(PLEASE SHARE THIS STORY IMAGE ANYWHERE YOU WANT BECAUSE IT WILL HELP ME REACH MORE READERS — AND THAT WOULD BE AWESOME!)

I’m going to guess most of you have heard of good ol’ Monsanto. To many people and according to many opinion pieces, “good ol'” translates to “sonsofbitches” or worse. Among their many unpopular moves is the infamous crop seed that grows just fine, but the seed that crop yields is infertile, good for making food (how good or not-so-good is the subject of much debate) but not for growing more crops.

That way, the ages-old practice of saving seed can no longer “steal” Monsanto’s profits. Every time a farmer wants to grow a crop, they must buy new seeds. No more freeloading on the bounty of nature the way the last ten or twenty thousand years’ worth of humans have for you, 21st century farmers! And there are other entanglements Monsanto and their bretheren in agribusiness offer, but this is the one I’m concerned with here.

The imagination doesn’t have to stretch terribly far to imagine this principle of planned obsolescence (or rather, planned sterility) applied to things other than corn and wheat. If it could be pulled off with chickens and pigs and cows, the potential profits soar.

It seems villainous, but if it could be pulled off with humans, involuntarily, carried and spread perhaps by a common hearty virus or bacterium or similarly unicellular and ubiquitous — something common, like a cold or herpes or e coli or yeast — people would flock to whoever held the “baby-key,” cash in hand.

Unless they didn’t have enough cash.

There are enough people around now who despise the “leeches,” the “forty-seven percent who won’t take responsibility for their own lives,” the “useless eaters,” the “[massively racist or other -ist assumption about demographic X all being poor and shiftless],” or the class I belong to, “people who viciously choose to be born to parents who don’t have a hell of a lot of money.”

Can you think of someone who, given the chance, would happily release this hypothetical reproduction-ransoming virus and take joy in the idea of restricting reproduction to couples who can scrape together $100,000 cash, for example?

Some execrable Martin Shkreli of a human being, perhaps?

The only hope the poor would have would be the services of some gallant Robin Hoodesque genehacker, stealing the intellectual baby-unlocking property of the rich and giving pregnancy to the poor. There’s something very cyberpunky about the whole idea, isn’t there?

Let’s hope this scenario stays in my imagination.

(This story appeared on my Patreon page on the 19th – become a patron, because you see posts early, get FREE ebooks 30 days ahead of release, and also because I am straining mightily to make writing and dreaming into a family-supporting business. I need your help to do it, whether it’s by pledging or by reading and sharing my posts and stories!)

Ebook Single: “Only Thirty Cents A Day”: A Tale Of Mystery Cars And Charity

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Get your ebook single of this story at AmazonBarnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Google Play Books, or Smashwords.

Only Thirty Cents A Day is a little story inspired by the heartstring-jerker television ads pleading for help feeding and inoculating poverty-stricken populations in various poverty hotspots around the world. I got to thinking, what would it take for — someone — to consider us in the pretty-darn-well-off-on-average USA in need of similar missionary-style poverty relief efforts? Who would be moved to make such an effort? I spent quite a few idle minutes jotting down notes and then promptly crossing most of them out, until finally the solution hit me.

What’s the solution? It’s all revealed by the end. So of course, being a typical tease of the author, I’m going to show you a preview… of the beginning.

Here’s the first quarter of the story:

Only Thirty Cents A Day

S.A. Barton

     Frederick Bolling pulled his little hybrid car into his reserved parking space and unfolded himself from the driver’s seat. His lower back crackled like cereal when you pour the milk over. He was a tall man, not made for little environmentally friendly cars, and he was older than he had ever thought he’d get when he was an idealistic college student, or even after that, when he served in the Peace Corps. Bringing some of the benefits of the technological first world to folks who had no access to it themselves, and hopefully he hadn’t inflicted too much of the so-called civilized world’s downside on the people he’d tried to help all those decades ago.

     He shook off the moment of nostalgic fugue—they came more often, the farther past seventy he got—and stood, grumbling, then eyes flashing wide as he turned and found himself face to face with an unexpected man. Frederick reflexively took an awkward little hop-step back. The curve of the car’s open door frame dug into his back and he sucked in a deep breath, ready to shout if he had to.

     “That’s a hydrocarbon burner, right?” the unexpected man asked, like you’d ask the time on the street, casual. He held up his hands, palms out: I mean you no harm. His features were odd and Frederick stared. The man’s skin was darker than Frederick’s, sub-Saharan Africa dark, but his eyes were faded blue, almost white, and were partially hidden by strong epicanthic folds.  His nose was bulbous and his ears were distinctly pointed, holding back straight black hair that was so fine it stirred restlessly with the faint breeze that penetrated the enclosed garage from outside. His brow had a heavy ridge, almost a shelf you could set tiny knicknacks on. Something about his posture was odd, too. Something indefinable.

     Frederick blinked, trapped between looking away to avoid being caught staring and too obviously looking away as if the stranger was too strange to look at. It was rude to stare at someone with… whatever genetic abnormality had caused the odd features.

     “I’m sorry,” Frederick said, meaningless politeness-words as he stepped smoothly to the side, face shutting down in the New York brushoff.

     “Your car burns petroleum, sir?” the man asked again, moving just slightly into Frederick’s path. Frederick stopped, wondering if his initial alarm had been the right reaction after all.  The other man was smaller than he was, but much younger. His features made it hard to judge, but he looked like he might be just out of college. He was dressed like an artist or street performer, or maybe a celebrity trying too hard to be outrageous, with a wide-lapel aquamarine shirt and bolo tie under a pinstriped jacket with long tails and matching pinstriped slacks. Even his dark shoes had pinstripes. Some kind of weird activist? The city had them like it had rats and cockroaches, underfoot in the most unexpected places.

     “It’s a hybrid. I’m environmentally conscious. Try the twelfth level, it’s mostly sportscars,” Frederick said, avoiding eye contact, foot sliding to the side to take off on a new vector.

     “How would you like a solar car?” the weirdo asked as Frederick began to walk again.  “No gas to buy. Not even a need to plug it in.”

     “I’m not buying,” Frederick said without turning, walking away toward the elevator, free.

     “I’m not selling,” the voice came from behind him as Frederick boarded the elevator.  “You’ll see.”

     Frederick left work an hour earlier than the bulk of the office, to beat the worst of rush hour traffic. He keyed the door PIN and got into his car, the stranger from the morning forgotten, and tried to start his car.

     His key didn’t fit. It slid off plastic behind the steering wheel, and he looked closer. There was no receptacle there to receive it. Frederick blinked at the featureless plastic. In a life that included a new car every other year, it wasn’t too unusual to forget the quirks of the new car and remember the quirks of a past car instead.

     But the ignition wasn’t placed differently than he remembered.  He even checked the center console next to the automatic shift, remembering an old Saab he had had in college that had started that way. The ignition wasn’t there, either. There simply wasn’t any.

     “How the hell… where’s the ignition?” he said aloud to himself. Had he somehow gotten into the wrong car? The door PIN was only four numbers, maybe by some odd coincidence…

     “Ignition?” the car said, voice soft, echoing him.

     “Um. Yes,” Frederick said. His car definitely did not talk.

     The car hummed to life smoothly, dash lights glowing cool green…

…and that’s the end of the preview. Hope you’ll check out how it ends; the links to find it are right under the picture at the top of this post in case you’ve forgotten.  🙂

Thirteen Word Story: They Walk Among Us

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Wearing the skins of the homeless, scouts for the alien invasion spied, invisible.

Six Word Story: Poverty In 3D

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Poverty In 3D

The poor?

Let them print cake!

Read A Preview: Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke

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It’s available at Smashwords and Amazon (ebook or paperback) and Barnes & Noble (also both ebook & paperback available) and Google Play Books and iTunes Bookstore and even Kobo.

Here’s the short description — the first third of the story is farther down this page:

Jonny lives with his mom on the hardscrabble coast of North Carolina. The old coast is underwater — Jonny’s dad makes a living diving to salvage valuables from drowned towns, rarely home. It’s a hard life. When Jonny rescues Kitty Itty he learns a bit about responsibility and caring, but the coming hurricane Xerxes may teach them both some harder lessons.

#

This one is a bit of a departure from my usual. It’s just barely science fiction, set in a near future in which climate change and sea level rise have chewed away a lot of the US coast — and the North Carolina coast is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels, with low barrier islands and lots of low lying land. It’s a YA tale with a poverty-stricken preteen protagonist learning some lessons about caring for others and how hard it can be — especially when you’re trying to care for a headstrong young tomcat.

I know I always say this, but I think you’ll like it. It’s a good yarn, and I’m proud that it came out of my very own personal brain.

Here’s a preview of the first third of the story:

Kitty Itty and the Seawall Broke

S.A. Barton

 Jonny was a boy. Hair blond and sun-bleached, eyes deep black, skin sun-beaten into the color of coconut shell, he was a creature of the beach. The beach itself was pale sand streaked with rich dark veins of sand from the old wrecked barrier islands folded into the new.

Jonny did not remember the old beach or the drowned towns of the barrier islands that had been ground away by the last century of growing storms and rising seas. But he had heard, at the feet of his widowed grandmother. And he knew that the things he hunted in the sand were pieces of an older life, pieces he could touch. He thought he could feel the past through them sometimes, vibrating, connecting him like a lamp to electricity (they had it in the kitchen, provided by a state that liked to boast that it left no home in the dark), lighting him up with the way things had been, before the ocean chewed up the tourist draws, before the money went away, before his family was reduced to digging a living from the sea in salvage.

Before the town of New Kill Devil spent what little it had to build the seawall, to stop the ocean where it cut across the dunes to the south, to chew at the backside of the town.

Jonny looked up as the wind gusted a spray of stinging sand across the beach. The waves broke in churning brown and white at the steepness where the sea ate the land; farther out, a mile or more, a ragged white line marked where the waves broke the first time before coming ashore, over the tops of what his grandmother said was drowned road and town. His father was somewhere out beyond that white line, for weeks, months at a time, diving into the wrecks along the coast. The same job that had killed grandfather. One day it will probably kill dad too, Jonny thought.

One day it will kill me. He threw off the chilly thought with a shrug of his bony shoulders and attacked an odd lumpy lay of damp sand with the pointed stick he carried. A lay like that might only be a bubble churned into the sand by the high tide. It might be a tangle of seaweed, a corroded-out aluminum can, a clam (though these were rare and had grown even more so in Jonny’s short memory). Or it might be something of value.

The stick struck a hardness. Scrawny cables of muscle showed on Jonny’s arms as he twisted and dug the stick under it, exploring its edges. Then he levered at it, pushing it to the surface. It squeaked, he thought, an odd thin sound. Bending metal? But it hadn’t bent. It was a rectangle, metal etched by salt, its glass face cracked and marked with a thin white maze, the broken foundations of a cluster of barnacles that had died young.

A tablet computer, a half-century out of date. A thing his family could not afford, old or new, never had been able to, never would.

Jonny shoved the tablet into his net bag. There were a few grams of precious metals in the thing. The battery would have a few grams of rare earths.

The little it was worth was a small contribution, but like his father Jonny earned money for the family. It made him feel like he really belonged—in his family, to the beach and to the sea and town. He set his stick in the sand, threw his head back, sucked in the salt through his nostrils, tasting it, making it part of him.

And he heard the squeak again. He looked: there was nothing under his stick, under his feet. His bag had not shifted. The tablet was long-drowned; it could not have made a sound.

Squeeek.

It was coming from the land side, where the beach grass struggled to hold root, battered ragged by storms. And it wasn’t a squeak.

It was a meow, thin and weak.

Jonny lifted his stick and walked up slow, beachcomber’s eyes picking out details.

There, the grass waved against the wind, twitched. Jonny crested the low dune. He glimpsed a trace of red flicking among the brown seed heads. A fox, working the dunes like Jonny was, searching for sustenance.

The fox had cornered something in a sand pocket in the lee of a dune. Something that meowed; if it was an adult cat it would be spitting and clawing. A cat in its prime might face down a fox.

So it was an old cat, or a wounded one, or a kitten.

“Scat, y’all!” Jonny shouted from the top of the dune, and he flung his digging stick like a spear. The fox popped up in the air like it was on springs and the stick gouged the sand under it. The fox seemed to be running before its paws came back down to ground, sending sand rattling in the stiff brown-green reeds, red tail drawing a streak through them over the next dune and gone.

“Meew-eeeww,” the kitten said from its pocket in the sand, body heaving with the two-part meow as Jonny approached. It was hardly more than a handful; it shivered as he lifted it. It felt lighter in his hand than an apple. Its tail was bitten and one of its back paws, too.

Carrying the kitten in the crook of one arm, Jonny collected his digging stick and net bag in the other and headed home.

#

“’Kitty Itty’ is a name a four year old would pick,” his mother said. “Pick another.”

“He’s itty-bitty, mom,” Jonny said.

“He won’t be later,” she said. “Little kittens grow up to be big Toms. Do you think he’ll want to be ‘Kitty Itty’ when he’s a big cat looking to start a family of his own?”

“It’s his name,” Jonny said. “He’ll be my responsibility. I’ll change his sandbox from the beach and I’ll hunt seagulls if we got no scraps to feed him.” Anticipating her protests. It worked.

“You be sure you do, then. I’ve already got a boy to look after, I don’t need no cats, too.”

“He just needs cared for, mom. I can do it.”

“Easier said than done, Jonny,” she said, voice soft and mellow because… he didn’t know why. She ruffled his salt-stiff hair, her scarred and calloused fingers rough on his sunburnt scalp. “It gets to be too much, Jonny, you come talk to me. I won’t take him over—he’s your’un—but I’ll help with any troubles you have. How’s that sound?”

“Deal, mom.”

They shook hands solemnly. She sighed, that a boy so young should need to be so serious. He thought she was only worried and gave her a hug. He took Kitty Itty to the bathtub to wash out his wounds, and she made a nest of old worn-out rags in a box for the kitten’s bed and set it next to Jonny’s cot.

“Thanks, mom,” drifted back to her in the kitchen while she cut salt pork for the turnips and greens she was making for dinner. She smiled a little smile and kept cutting, quiet.

Too few boys learned to care for others, came to understand that caring isn’t just for girls. Her eyes drifted up to the sea outside the window beyond the dunes, then back down.

It’s the job, she thought. It’s not Mark’s fault. He tries to be a good father and husband. But it was a hard thought to hold on to, excusing his absence, through all the weeks alone.

Weeks alone were what she had, and Jonny too—he had never known different. His father had grown up like Jonny, dragging the beach for salvage, and he had gone off to sea shortly after marriage. A beachcomber made only pennies; a salvageman made dollars worth bringing home to a wife and child.

He returned to them only once in the whole summer. By then Kitty Itty had recovered from his wounds and begun to grow like a weed, fed on rich bits of salt pork and chicken and fish and bacon from the table, and on the seagulls foolish enough to come near Jonny when he went out with his hand-pumped pellet gun.

The seagulls never went on the table; Jonny’s mother wouldn’t allow it even when all there was to eat were dandelion greens and wild onions she gathered with her own hands. Poor people could afford only a little pride. Jonny’s mom clung to the little they had fiercely.

When Jonny’s father came home in the summer, he had a damp canvas bag slung over one shoulder. He was a little man, sawed off short and swaying on bowed legs, but broad across shoulders heavy with muscle grown by the hard work of salvage. His hands and face were stiff like leather, burnt with salt, and his voice was gravelly from too much time sucking air out of damp rusty tanks while diving.

“Jonny!” was the only word he said as he stepped up on the porch. The old boards whined under his weight. Jonny threw himself into a hug under his dad’s one free arm, and Kitty Itty came out to see what the fuss was about, rubbing against their legs.

Inside the bag was a pair of fat fish, puppydrum with big ink-black spots on the tail. He pulled them out and showed them to Jonny’s mom, grinning, then set them down to embrace his wife. All they said was ‘I missed you’ before she turned to clean the fish, dropping the heads and collars in with the dandelion greens. They never seemed to have many words for each other.

They had plenty of words for Jonny, though. His dad told him all about diving off the coast of South Carolina, working a drowned yacht dealership, and how the crumbling old boats on the seabottom waved back and forth with the current, threatening to roll over on the divers but never quite doing it, and how they’d pumped up enough diesel from the tanks there to run the salvage boat’s fuel cells for a year. His mom told him that the roll of cash his dad handed her would keep them in their little house all the way to winter, and replace the shoes and jeans he had outgrown to boot. When the words died down Jonny put a fistful of flaky fish flesh in Kitty Itty’s bowl and told his parents he needed to head to the beach to change the sandbox. He retrieved the smelly plastic bag he kept under the porch for the occasion, stuffed his net bag in a back pocket just in case, dumped the contents of the cat box in the plastic bag, and left his parents, hopefully, to actually talk to each other.

It was hard, when dad was out so much of the time, Jonny thought. All the time they spent together, they spent getting to know each other again. They never really got to be comfortable, just doing the things a family does. He wondered what it would be like, all of them together all the time.

When he got to the beach he walked far to the side of the trail, to dump the cat sand. Then he walked out almost to the edge of the water and sat down to watch the ghost crabs explore the moonlight. Giving his parents time.

A ghost crab spends a lot of time in its hole, hiding. It comes out when it thinks nobody is around, then comes out bit by bit, skittish.

Jonny watched the beach, sitting, marking the crashing of waves like the ticks of a clock, until one came out. He saw it peek, almost big as his fist and pale, shoving half its body out of its burrow sideways in a single motion, not there one moment, there the next. It paused, frozen. Jonny was careful not to move, not to speak or cough, to remain absolutely still. If he scared it back down, it would take a long time to gather the courage to come back out.

A jerky inch at a time, it emerged. All over the beach, tiny motions made it look as if the sand were twitching, and in the space of a minute a dozen, two dozen more ghost crabs skittered out, poking around the edges of rocks, crouching over deposits of windblown junk in sand pockets, crawling over twists of driftwood. Once one ghost crab comes out, the rest follow. New Kill Devil was like that, Jonny thought. Mostly folks kept to themselves, but on holidays, or on Saturday for shopping and barter, everyone came out all at once. But you could feel the jerky crab tension: everyone was ready to go rushing back home at the smallest disturbance.

Jonny watched the crabs comb the beach, digging up the crumbs that kept them alive. The moon slid down the sky, shadows tilted and stretched behind the crabs, the breeze freshened, and eventually Jonny noticed he was shivering.

He scooped up his bag of fresh cat sand and headed home to sleep. In the morning dad was gone and they had the fish he had brought home for breakfast. They didn’t talk at all while they ate. Jonny sat, chewing slowly, feeling as if his father might as well not have come at all, this stranger who grew more distant every visit.

#

Summer turned to fall. Dad returned, this time with no fish but with more money and a huge ham from up in Virginia, the butt and shank together all the way down to where the trotter had been cut away from the ankle joint. He stayed three whole days, and left right before the town came together to celebrate Labor Day in the square. Mom cooked a big pot of greens for the potluck with the ham’s shank bone and they took turns carrying it as they walked to the town square.

It was a good picnic day; a couple of the old men of town brought out radios and they all listened to music from inland, wavery broadcasts cut with static pops, all the way from Rocky Mount and Raleigh-Durham. They listened to the music, and also to the ads peddling used cars (solar, ethanol, autodrive, zero down!) and fast food burgers and air conditioners, all the things the devouring sea had chased off the coast ahead of it.

In between plates of greens and cornbread and fried chicken and potato salad, the robot voice of the National Weather Service cut in with a warning that Hurricane Xerxes was turning north coming off of Cuba and could be expected to run up the coast, maybe into Florida, maybe straight into Virginia, it was too early to tell.

Already this year two hurricanes had whooshed past the town, out to sea; they had been no stronger than a regular nor’easter. But that meant winds over fifty miles per hour, and more sand lost off the beach, and more beating on the seawall that kept the waves out of New Kill Devil’s backside.

“They built a seawall at old Kill Devil, too,” his grandmother said. She had met them at the picnic; they didn’t see her as much as when Jonny was little. She had moved inland, just a few miles, the other way out of town from them. “You should come live with me,” she said, as if that connected to her first sentence. She found a way to say that every time they saw each other, and every time she did, Jonny could see his mother turn stiff. “Your father left a little pension when he passed, and I make a bit of money sewing. I could take in more work if you were there to help. Jonny could help too. He’s big enough to handle most chores around a house, and that would make us more time to sew.”

“You know how little Mark gets to see us as it is. If he had to make a trip inland from the boat and then back out every time, we’d hardly see him at all. With us by the beach, when he comes ashore for a day we see him for a day. It’s important a father spend time with his boy,” his mom said, her hand squeezing Jonny’s shoulder. As if, if I didn’t exist, it wouldn’t matter, Jonny thought.

“Then button up the house and come inland ’til this Xerxes passes,” grandma said. “You just need safe. Go on back after it passes, if you want.”

“We don’t need no help,” mom said.

Any help. I swear, child. And I sent you to school.”

“Mother,” Jonny’s mom said to grandma, biting the word off hard, and she pulled Jonny away by the arm. The plate tilted from his hand as she tugged, and potato salad tumbled to the grass. Wasted food from people who had nothing to waste…

And that’s the preview. Though I’ll leave you with one more little piece of preview: Xerxes isn’t turning aside. Things are about to get even rougher for little Jonny.