Aquarium Life

Aquarium Life

In Issue 67 by Troy Ernest Hill

Aquarium Life
Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

I score my first soccer goal ever. It’s only practice, but still. Coach claps and shouts, “Way to go, Henry!” A couple of teammates jog by in these knee-high, stretchy blue socks we have to wear, saying, “Good job, Gollum,” and “Finally,” and kind of laughing.

My parents made me play because they said I spend too much time on my aquarium. I made it like how the ocean was before, with colored reefs and glowing fish and huge whales. OK, not like I have whales, but I made it so the fish can have like nature plus enhancements because technology: gray and black pebbles on the bottom, mini blue coral along one side, tiny red plants that wave in the pump-made current, and a sunken pirate ship—OK, I know that’s not like nature, but still. Also, I have me in there. Not really, but I have a tiny camera on a motor so I can swim around and see what my fish see through 3D glasses that connect to it. The camera looks out from the tip of an L-shaped stand that sits on a small, square, plastic base with propellers jutting out from four sides so I can move in any direction via my remote pad. Plus, it has wheels for roaming the bottom. That way, I can visit the fish up close and get ideas for making enhancements to their world even more.

Maybe it’s dumb, but I named my orange and black Oscar fish Oscar because he looks so much like an Oscar. This one time he looked right at me. It was like we were friends, and he was saying hi. I don’t have that many friends, like some kids, but I don’t care because I have my fish: three guppies, Gary, George, and Gills, an angel fish named Angel Eyes, the Oscar fish named Oscar, and four neon tetra and four zebrafish who I haven’t named yet because I’m still learning how to tell them apart.

They gave me an idea for a school paper because what if we could be as small as fish and our neighborhood domes could be as small as their aquariums? In other words, how it would save resources if we enhanced the next generation of humans to be in tiny bodies. If we were tiny bodies, we wouldn’t have to eat much, and our domes could be much smaller and require less energy, and also people could be allowed to have more than one baby that way because we wouldn’t need as much, and I could have a brother or sister. Also, the obvi argument against it is that our brains would be bug size so we wouldn’t be smart, but that’s dumb because we could still plug into all the data centers for computing power. I got an A.

But my parents think I need physical activity for “development” and for making friends with kids instead of fish, so I play soccer and it’s OK now that I know how to pass and shoot for goals. But still, even when you know how, it doesn’t always happen the right way on the field when everyone’s running and shouting. I don’t know why they didn’t give me sports enhancements. The incubator labs offer enhancements for just about anything. They have all these different packages, like parents can pick a certain number of enhancements for a certain price. You can help your kid be better at math or languages or help them be strong and more athletic, or taller, or have blue eyes, or not get certain diseases. I guess mine played it safe and a little cheap by helping me be smart and not get diseases—that’s why I’m pretty good at math but even better at papers. Science is the only subject that’s kind of hard because I don’t like when you have to remember the weird long words for things.

Some people think my green eyes are an enhancement, but they aren’t—they came from my mom. That’s why kids at school call me green-eyed Gollum because we read this book in language arts called The Hobbit that’s like over a hundred years old, and then we watched the movie. Sometimes I wish my parents had picked the social butterfly enhancement, but I’m just kidding because I don’t think anyone’s figured out that enhancement yet, and I’m not even the one who thinks I need more friends because I have my fish.

I text my mom from the SunTram on the way home from school about my goal. My dad doesn’t like texts during his business day, but my mom says she’s totally fine with multitasking because women are better at it than men anyway, and then she pokes a finger into my dad’s arm. It’s loud on the tram with school kids and crowded with shift 1 workers in different uniforms. I like to ride in the way back of the last car so I can see out the back window. It’s fun to watch the tram poop out red tracks over the city—like when my fish swim around with a poop thread coming out of their bottoms. As we go farther away, MiddleSchool3.Dome gets smaller, and the gray sky gets bigger. I should know how fast it goes. Rate equals distance divided by time. It’s slow near the stations, but then really fast in between, so you’d have to calculate for acceleration.

It’s because I’m looking out the back that I know where we are when the tram slams to a stop. Lucky I’m done texting and holding onto the safety strap with my hand not holding the phone. If I wasn’t holding on like you’re supposed to, I’d be in the pile of workers wearing hard hats in front of me. Well, they were wearing hard hats, but now some of the hats aren’t on their heads anymore. They’re all like bent over the seats and each other and pushing around to stand back up while saying bad words. This one little girl near the front of the car shrieks while her mom examines her head like it got banged. Some kids are laughing because they fell on the floor, and some are laughing just because they’re surprised, I guess.

It’s probably this thing the outsiders do called a “tram jam.” It’s like their protest. They make homemade bombs or set some huge old machine across the tracks or even one time they piled these dead bodies to stop the commutes and make the news. It went viral and everything, but what are we supposed to do if people out there keep pumping out kids like animals? My dad says they should just stop. I mean if they just stopped, then there wouldn’t be people out there anymore. Some people think we should bring them inside the domes, but it’s too dangerous because the domes are like awesome, and if an outsider got inside, they could do a lot more damage than stopping the tram for a half hour while they clear the tracks. That’s why you have to pass through this eye scanner or be on file before you can come into our dome, so that way only residents and approved workers get inside.

A lady’s voice comes on the speaker. “Safety alert. Pardon the inconvenience and thank you for choosing SunTram. A safety alert has halted progress on the East Branch line between Middle School 3 and City Center. Your safety is our number one priority at SunTram. Thank you for your patience.”

People gasp a little when the tram goes backwards. It’s not very fast, but it makes your stomach kind of flip when you don’t expect the floor to move in the wrong direction. Plus, there’s this weird scraping sound, really loud, like in a video when you’re wearing headphones turned up high. I kind of like it though because the back window becomes the front window when the train goes backwards. Duh. The tram is eating the tracks now instead of pooping them. I see way ahead, like three hundred feet, the round nose of a tram behind us, I mean in front of us, poking out of MiddleSchool3.Dome station—more like a human poop when it’s about to come out. Gross.

I’m wondering how they’re going to bring us back into the station if there’s another tram in the way. Well, they don’t. Instead, we stop in between stations along this curve that has a platform on one side of the tracks. The lady announcer comes on and says the exact same thing all over again. Maybe it’s a recording. People in the tram are texting and taking video of each other. Then, outside, SunTram staff in their yellow uniforms step out of an elevator onto the narrow platform. I wave, but I don’t think they can see me through the window because the sun glare—kind of like you can’t see into the domes from the outside even though they’re basically glass, I think. I wonder if it’s hot for the staff with all their yellow jackets and pants and helmets on. Maybe they have air conditioning inside there. That would be cool. Haha.

It’s kind of scary to look down. The tracks hover way over the ground. But it’s cool, too, because usually, even if you get a window seat, the train goes too fast to see much underneath, and what you see is mostly just the sides of the curved domes and the square and spikey buildings like basic geometry. But now because we’re stopped, I can look down and see the top of a scraggly tree with a few brown leaves hanging on and plastic bags in the crooked branches, two square rooftops of a couple old-fashioned apartment buildings, and the long rectangle of a huge yellow truck moving up the street with who knows what’s inside.

SunTram staff must open a door in the front because people start filing out. I can’t really see from here, but I can hear directions coming through a megaphone. They tell us to stay calm and single file and watch our step, even though it would be impossible to fall off the platform because the tram is on one side of it and a tall mesh railing is on the other. I have to wait, and it takes forever because they’re putting people on this elevator and, when it fills up, we have to wait for it to come back for the line to move again. It’s kind of weird because usually they just make you wait inside your tram until they clear the tracks. I’ve never had to go outside.

The door sits wide open for so long that the air changes inside the tram. You can smell it like when my aquarium needs cleaning. When I finally step out onto the platform, it’s so steamy like if you were inside a rice cooker. I guess it’s what my mom calls an “interesting experience.” She always raises her eyebrows into a wide arrow and nods a little when she says it. That’s looking on the bright side. While I’m waiting in line on the platform for the elevator and it’s taking forever, I look at the front of the tram and see what the scraping was—the front wheel got bent, so I guess we ran into something super hard and heavy. I wonder how the outsiders get stuff like that way up onto the tracks.

Finally, I cram onto the elevator. Even though it’s huge and fits like twenty people, it’s crowded because there are so many of us, and the hard-hat guys are so big with their equipment belts and labor muscles, maybe even enhancements, but maybe not because my dad explained that people with labor jobs can’t always afford enhancements. The SunTram staff person presses a button, and you can feel a rumble, but you can’t really tell the elevator’s going down. It’s like that ride that shakes at AdventureWorld.Dome, but less shaky than the ride because the elevator isn’t meant to be fun. On my last birthday, my parents took me to AdventureWorld.Dome. It was so awesome, but for my thirteenth I want to go to this aquarium that’s supposed to be like mine times 150,000. You have to ride WindTrack to get to those places—not SunTram. It’s bigger and faster and goes across state lines.

Even though it doesn’t feel like we go down, we do, because when the doors open, we’re on the ground where there’s a concrete walkway. The staff guy leads us around a metal wall to where the other riders are already waiting. This one lady sits on the ground holding her hand over her eye crying and blood is on her face, and this SunTram staff person with safety gloves is providing medical attention. People look at her and look away like she’s naked or something, but it’s not her fault she got hurt. The paved lot has cracks so wide that weird plants grow out of them. Maybe that could be a cool school paper, to ID the plants that grow outside in old parking lots. But then again, the plants probably have those weird long names that are hard to remember.

On the other side of the lot, a bunch of adults and kids of different ages are hanging out around these tents and vans under scraggly trees. Some have long beards and some don’t. We’re not supposed to call them homeless. Some might be, but many do “flexible housing” because the outside houses get destroyed a lot by fires and floods and have to be rebuilt, but some people can’t afford to rebuild real houses anymore, so they move around in tents and stuff. When I was little, I thought it sounded fun, but I’ve seen enough video now to know it’s not. I saw on this one video a whole neighborhood basically floating down a huge river that used to be a town. People were screaming from roofs, and there was this baby floating and these people jumped in after it, and the video stopped before you could tell, but I don’t think they ever got out again, including the baby.

That’s why domes are so nice because they’re protected from storms—fireproof and windproof and sealed from flood water and stuff like that. It’s “climate controlled” and the air is tight. I mean, my dad says it’s airtight and fuel efficient, like, everyone can leave their windows open, even. I saw this one commercial on the internet before our dome was sold out. The voice goes, “This week’s forecast for EastBranch9.Dome: clement as a clementine day and night but watch out for those sprinkler systems that’ll give you a pleasant mist on Thursday!” We’re a level 4 neighborhood dome, so it’s super nice but not like crazy nice. We have 1/8th-acre lots, one maple tree in front of every house, four tennis courts, sidewalks, electric carts for parents to take to the stores near the SunTram station, and this jogging path surrounded by trees and a creek around the edge so you can do nature walks. If you go all the way around, it’s 5.25 miles. Sometimes they have races.

This is the first time I’ve seen flexible housing up close, and it’s like someone turned down the volume on all the color. It’s like everything’s old and faded, and the people over there look like they don’t eat enough. Maybe they parked their vans and set up their tents here because it’s not that far from StateGov.Dome where they give out food sometimes. StateGov.Dome is where government workers work, and it’s dark on the outside like a giant rock. I heard some outsiders eat the Asian invader worms that destroyed all the outside soccer and baseball fields and golf course grasses and the outside forests because these worms multiply so fast and eat all the nutrients in the soil so plants die. At first, I thought it was something against Asians like me, but no. It’s that the worms are bad for the plants in America because the animals that prey on the worms don’t live here, they live in Korea and Japan, so now there are way too many. Well, outsiders figured out the worms have a lot of nutrients from eating it all out from the forests and fields, and so they eat the worms and get the nutrients back. I just hope they at least fry them first or use ketchup or something. I hear they eat cats, too, and mice and rats and anything they can get. At least that’s what people say. My mom says a lot of outsiders aren’t that different from us and shop at grocery stores, but people love to paint a broad stroke over other people or something like that. She means that some people make other people all the same even though there are differences between them.

I wonder if the people hanging out around the tents are the type that go to a grocery store or the ones who eat the worms. Or do some do both? It would be gross if worms got caught in one of their long beards. Maybe I should ask that kid who’s staring at me and looks like he needs to eat more of whatever they eat. He’s wearing cool wraparound sunglasses and a baseball cap with a ponytail spooling out of the back down to his shoulders. My school would never allow that, but a lot of outsiders can’t afford school, even a lower-ranked one. Some people are mad because school used to be free, but I mean the teachers need to get paid and the school domes cost money to build, so why should it be free? That’s what my dad says. It’s a rhetorical question.

The SunTram staff guy opens his helmet’s face shield and garbles through the megaphone that it’s going to be a few minutes until another tram comes for us, and he’s telling the outsiders to stay back on their own side of the lot.

“Welcome SunTram riders to the lot of love and hunger,” some outsider holding a big-eared yellow mutt yells. “But don’t worry, we won’t bite your tasty noses off.” Some of the outsiders laugh and grin at us, and the dog barks a little but barely like it has a sore throat.

“Stay back!” The SunTram worker stands with his legs spread wide in the middle of the lot between us and the outsiders. He holds out a zapper with the hand not holding the megaphone.

I notice this lady in a folding chair with a baby that’s got its mouth around her boob. Mothers out here still grow their babies in their stomachs and feed them milk like cows. They scream in pain when they give birth out of their private parts. We watched a video at school, and there’s all this blood and a cord that connects to the mother that food goes through while the baby develops inside her body. I wouldn’t want my mom in all that pain. Plus, being inside her stomach all that time? Gross.

I hold up my phone and zoom in for video, but then it beeps.

“RU OK???” It’s my mom texting. She probably got an alert.

“OUTSIDE waiting for a new tram to come. Did you see about my goal?”

“So proud of you but be careful out there!”

“It’s hot and sticky and smells like dead mice.”

“No talking to strangers.”

That one boy in the cap is still looking over here. He nods and holds up two fingers. I know what my mom just texted, but I kind of want to ask him about stuff, about that lady. Besides, he’s a kid, so maybe that means he doesn’t count as a stranger. I drift past the SunTram staff guy to the far side of the lot and look back to see if he’ll come over.

“You still there?” My mom again.

“Just taking 4ever.”

“On the news. Another tram jam, but don’t worry. Be brave and you’ll be home before you know it!”

“What’s up, trix?” the kid calls out. He’s broken away from the others and walks up to the same end of the lot as me, but still on the outsiders’ side. It’s like a basketball court split down the middle.

I look over at the SunTram staff guy to see if we’re in trouble, but he set down his magaphone to swipe through his phone.

“Do you like it out here?” I can’t think of what else to say.

“What do you think, genius?”

“Do you know the people who did the tram jam? How do they get heavy stuff up on the tracks like that? How do they not get in trouble?”

He just shrugs with this smile that’s kind of nice and kind of devilly, like he knows something but won’t tell. His flannel shirt is frayed at the elbows, and his jeans are worn through at the knees. Some kids in high school think it’s cool to have clothes like that, but I’m not sure he’s doing it by choice, and besides, we’re the same height, so I’m pretty sure he’s only in middle school like me.

“It’s not very nice to mess up people’s commute.”

He laughs real sharp up at the sky like this tropical red and yellow bird in a video we watched at school that went extinct like twenty years ago.

“Did your mother feed you like that?” I nod toward the lady in the folding chair.

“Nope. I’m a cleftover. Never met my bio mom.” He cocks his chin out at me like it’s a dare.

“That’s not real.”  A cleftover? No way. At the incubator labs where they grow the embryos and your parents can pay for enhancements, some places used to make copies as backups and keep them in another lab in case something went wrong—because with power outages and storms and everything before most of the labs were moved inside domes. Most of the time, the backups got thrown out, but like before it was a real baby or anything. But then this story went around that some labs grew the copies into babies and sold them for dark market adoptions and stuff even though it’s against the law. My teacher for Genetics and Surveillence Ethics said the whole thing’s not true. He calls it “conspiracy theory.” He says it’s meant to plant seeds of distrust against people who can afford enhancements and live in neighborhood domes.

“Do you go to school?” I don’t want to be mean, but it kind of looks like maybe he doesn’t, and if he believes in conspiracies … “My teacher taught us that cleftover is an example of misinformation.”

“My parents mostly teach me. My adopted parents. But they’re super smart, so I know about misinformation and indoctrination, do you?” He swings back and forth so his ponytail slaps his shoulders. His hands are in his pockets, and I can see three of his fingernails through a hole in his jeans.

“I’m not sure.”

“You two there!” The SunTram staff guys calls through the megaphone and starts walking over.

“I guess we’re not supposed to talk.”

“Want to text later?” He holds up his phone, and I hold up mine to scan. “I’m Hoon,” he says.

“Back off to your own side of the lot.” The staff guy points the zapper at Hoon, like it’s all his fault, before I can even say my name. “And you, get back in line with the rest of the customers. SunTram is back online.” He says it less mean to me, just because I’m not an outsider, I guess.

Hoon walks off toward the tents with his ponytail bobbing in the sun. “Hope your new tram doesn’t get toasted,” he calls out, turning back at me smiling, so I know it’s only a joke even if it’s a mean one. Then he takes his sunglasses off and just stands there.

“Watch it there, kid.”

I bump into the big back of one of the shift workers in front of me because I can’t take my eyes off Hoon’s eyes that are green like mine and, also, just really like mine. He nods, laughing, like he just won a bet or something.

+

I get sesame soy cream after dinner because my mom says I experienced trauma. I want to tell my parents about Hoon, but also, I want to text him later, and I’m not sure they would let me because he doesn’t go to my school or live in a dome, but is that fair? Also, I want to ask what happens to people who do tram jams because I heard sirens when I was waiting on the platform to get back on the tram. Not that I think Hoon did the tram jam or anything because he’s only a kid and I think he’s probably nice even though he tries to act tough, but still.

My mom tells my dad about my goal. I completely forgot about it after the SunTram trauma, so it makes it easier not to tell about Hoon and talk about soccer practice instead. But then I can’t help it.

“Is it possible for two people to look the same and not be related?” I look at my dad in his dark suit jacket and crispy white shirt.

He raises his eyebrows at my mother like he thinks my question is smart. “Well, break it down, Henry. Fourteen billion people inhabit this planet. What’s the probability that the right combination of genes turns up more than once to make two people look similar? Remember that their complete set of genes wouldn’t have to be exactly the same for two people to look alike, but certainly a considerable number of them would. You should do some calculations but finish your homework first.”

I lick what’s left of the melted soy cream off my spoon. “How weird is it that I have green eyes even though I’m Korean?”

“It’s not weird, Henry. It’s not weird at all.” My dad folds his napkin into a triangle and sets it on the table. “You got your green eyes from your beautiful mother. You know that. Did someone try to make you feel bad about them?” He scrunches his forehead like he’s worried that I’m getting made fun of at school again.

“No, just curious.” I go to my room and feed my fish and do my homework and try to calculate the chance for two people to look alike. If humans have 80,000 genes and there are 14 billion humans, the likelihood is still pretty small even if they only need like 50,000 genes to be the same. Then I remember to turn my phone back on because my homework is done, and I’m allowed.

“What’s up, bro?”

Hoon texted! I’m kind of scared but excited, too. What if I could be friends with an outsider? That would be so cool, but what if he’s my cleftover? But that’s not possible because it’s misinformation, plus he has long hair and is tanner than me, but OK those things don’t have anything to do with genes, but still. Maybe Hoon was just playing about that anyway. He didn’t even say he was my cleftover. He just said he’s a cleftover, and OK we look alike, but he wasn’t that close when I got a look at him without his glasses. Plus, what my dad said.

“Did you get in trouble with police?”

“They put 4 adults from the village in a van, but they came back later. All good.”

“I didn’t get to tell you before, but my name is Henry.”

“I know, trix.”

“How?”

“I know stuff, plus your phone number shows it.”

“Want to see my aquarium?”

“Guesso.”

“I mean from inside, so it’s like you’re a fish.”

“Hell yes.”

I try setting my phone camera up next to the 3D glasses so he can see, and it kind of works but not really. Hoon keeps texting me every night though, and it’s fun. I show him stuff in my room and around EastBranch9.Dome, like the nature trail, and he shows me stuff in flexible housing, like his parents’ van and his cot and some hard-printed books and comics. Also, this old magazine he found in his father’s things that’s like a porn site but just printed pics. I’m not supposed to watch those, and I don’t really, but I’ve seen a little because this kid at school passed around a video on his phone in the lunchroom.

Sometimes we text late at night when I’m supposed to be asleep. I like when all the lights are off except the little green one in the aquarium, and the gurgle of the pump sounds louder. Hoon tells how he used to live in a house in an outside neighborhood, but then it got torn up by a tornado while they hid in the basement. Then they lived in one of those old-fashioned rectangular apartment buildings, but then later it got torn down to clear the area for a dome—not this one though. His mom used to be a nurse and could get jobs easy, so his parents got this cool van, and they went to different parts of the country, including the Grand Canyon, but then they came back here because Hoon wanted to learn about where he came from. He says his parents helped him track down the people they adopted him from, and they told him the lab he came from isn’t there anymore, but StateGov.Dome has records of things and he investigated it like a detective.

“Maybe your parents died before you were done incubating.”

“No, I’m your cleftover. How else do you explain our looks?”

“MY cleftover?”

“Obvi. Think about it, trix.”

“Just because we have green eyes?”

“Because we look exactly alike.”

“Don’t say that.” I set the phone down and go to my aquarium. Angel Eyes is always all by herself in the corner, and I don’t think she minds. Maybe I don’t need friends besides my fish. I tap on the glass, and Angel Eyes swims away. The neon tetra and zebrafish hang out by the pirate ship. My phone buzzes.

“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want.”

“Two people can look the same. I have fish that look the same, but that doesn’t make them cleftovers. Fourteen billion people live on earth. It’s possible someone else looks like you.”

“From the same town though?”

“Maybe. I have to go to sleep now.”

I can’t really sleep, and I’m not sure I should stay friends with Hoon if he’s going to keep saying all that, even though having a human friend is fun. We text again the next night, and he drops the cleftover talk and doesn’t bring it up for a few days. He’s really funny and smart, probably smarter than me, so that’s more evidence that we’re different genes anyway. He has all these stories from his trips, like how near Yellowstone National Park someone from an outsider camp made a pile of old corn in a field. It got wet from rain and then turned like alcohol because it got so hot, and this real bear would come every day to eat it and fall down a bunch of times because it was so drunk.

“I wish you could come for a sleepover,” I text him one night, “but I’m not sure my parents would let me.”

“Don’t you think they’d like to know who I am?”

“TBH, that’s kind of the problem.” I tell him straight. “I don’t know if they would let me be friends with an outsider even though that’s not fair.”

“Don’t you think they’d like to know their other son?”

I throw my phone on the floor. Then I check it because I’m scared it broke, but it didn’t. I mean, in a way it’s fun to think Hoon’s the same as me, that we’re brothers—or more than brothers, but my teacher said it’s not true, plus it’s against the dome rules to have more than one child, and I thought we were going to drop it. Hoon keeps texting, but I stop texting back.

My mom asks if I’m OK when she comes to say goodnight. I just say I have a tummy ache. Then I have this nightmare that there are like five of us, all cleftovers except we have no mouths. And then it kind of feels like I believe Hoon even though I don’t, because it’s like when you dream something about someone, and you know it’s not true and just a dream, but you still feel like it’s true when you see them.

I start having a really hard time paying attention in school because the trauma of it all. I even get a bad grade on a World History test, and my parents ask what’s wrong. I can barely look them in the eye because I feel like I’m keeping a big secret from them. I can’t make any more goals at soccer either, and even when I try to pass, the ball doesn’t go to the right person, and the other players stop passing to me, pretty much ever. And on top of all that, I wake up one morning and Gary, George, and Gills are gone, and I guess it’s my fault because the internet says that Oscar fish eat guppies sometimes, and Oscar looks real suspicious.

I run some numbers like my dad always says to. Even if I have a cleftover, which I don’t, meeting your cleftover who was adopted by some random family 12.3 years ago in a random lot because of a random tram jam, like that would be way too much against the odds of probably. So, I’m pretty sure it’s not true.

Then we get this big new assignment in Genetics and Surveillence Ethics. We’re supposed to do an investigative report, and everyone’s talking about what they’re going to write about—population control, gene enhancements, food technology, moon mining, all the usual stuff. I know I need to pull my grades back up if I’m going to get into one of the good high schools, and I get an idea. I look around and bet no one besides me has ever made friends with an outsider. I could break new ground with a story about Hoon and his family—not the cleftover part—just like, how they live and why. Maybe he would let me interview them. Plus, this spring I’ll be old enough to apply to be a youth reporter, and this is just the kind of paper that could get me in. And maybe then I could quit soccer because being a youth reporter would also be good for development, and I would like it so much more. And maybe Hoon learned his lesson because I ignored him for so long now and will stop saying he’s my cleftover.

I count the four weeks of allowance I was saving up to buy a parrot fish to replace the guppies and text Hoon that I’m sorry.

“If you and your parents meet me at StateGov.Dome station after school one day, I could interview you in Citrus Café for my report on the outsider’s perspective and buy everyone lemon icies.”

He’s totally nice about it. He’s not even mad that I didn’t text back for a while. “BUT if you want to be a real reporter, I’ve got an idea.”

“???” Of course, he does.

“We swap for a night. Swap clothes and you can be in bed—in bedded or whatever. First-hand reporting. Like a real journalist going deep into the story. Pretend you’re me and I stay at your place.”

“Whoa. That could be awesome, but scary. How would it work? You have long hair, for one thing.”

“I already cut it like yours.”

“4 real. Why?” I’m wondering, is that neat or weird?

“It’s cooler like this.”

“Cool.” I thought Hoon was cooler than me, but that’s cool if he thinks I’m cool, I guess.

“I mean not as hot.”

“Oh.”

“And now it’ll make this easy.”

I try to imagine him sitting on my bed, wearing my pajamas, and saying goodnight to my mom. Couldn’t she tell?

“You really think we look that much alike?”

“Hello, genius.” He sends me a selfie.

I take it to the bathroom and hold the picture up to the mirror, and it pretty much freaks me out. His ears stick out exactly like mine now—and everything else. My phone buzzes. I don’t know what to do. I sit in the bathtub in my clothes for a while and look at Hoon’s picture. I didn’t want this to be about cleftovers again, but I should have known better. My mom comes in to say goodnight, so I get out of the tub and brush my teeth to act normal.

Later, I look at Hoon’s texts. He says we should swap on Wednesday and then, because I didn’t answer that and a bunch of other texts, he says I must be too scared to get dirty if I come to the tent village and how I must think I’m better than him and his parents just because we live in a dome.

“It’s not that!” I mean, it kind of is and it kind of isn’t. “I have a soccer game Wednesday after school.”

“You hate soccer.”

“I can’t just skip.”

“Thursday then. Meet me outside the station after school. You come here for the night. I go to EastBranch9.Dome.”

“But you won’t be able to get in through the eye scanner.”

“Of course I can because we have the same eyes.”

“No way will that work.”

“Why would I want to do it then? Besides, it’ll be a way for me to prove it to you.”

He’s serious, and for some reason, I feel scared for my mom and dad. “I don’t want you to tell my parents you’re their cleftover.”

“I won’t.”

“How do I know for sure?”

“If I told them I was me and not you, they’d freak and want to come find you and bring you home. Why would I want to mess the whole thing up?”

He kind of has a point, but still. “I don’t think it’s going to work.”

“Do you want to be a youth reporter, or do you want to play soccer all through high school?”

“U know.”

“You have to take risks to get a great story. You could win an award!”

My stomach is swimming flips. I picture my paper getting published on MiddleSchool3.Dome/StudentReporter with my pics of the tent village on the home screen. But what if something goes wrong? Also, if things go right and Hoon gets through the scanner, that means he really is my cleftover. I guess at least I’ll finally know the truth. Isn’t that what good reporting is all about?

+

After school on Thursday, I get out at the StateGov.Dome stop, ride the escalator down to the ground floor, and walk through the revolving glass door to the street outside where it’s like walking into the bathroom after my mom takes a really long shower. Hoon’s sitting on a gray bench across the street with his new haircut and a T-shirt with a picture of this crocodile named Crooked who’s a character in a video game and show my parents won’t let me play or watch because it’s super violent.

I’m scared what will happen if he tries to get into my dome and doesn’t pass the eye scanner. Just because we look alike doesn’t mean that will work unless they’re totally the same. If we were the same, he wouldn’t be so brave because I’m not.

“Are you sure you want to risk getting in serious trouble?” I’m panting a little from running over. “They call it illegal trespassing if you go inside a dome when you’re not supposed to.”

“I’m not getting in trouble, and neither are you. Come on, I’ll show you a shortcut.” He picks up a jean jacket he’s got and leads me through some trees that grow between StateGov.Dome and the tent village. Brown leaves on patches of spindly yellow grass and dirt crinkle under our sneakers. Hoon takes off his T-shirt next to this huge rock, and he looks more muscly than me even though he’s skinnier. I pull my white polo shirt with the school emblem on the heart side of the chest over my head and set it on the rock for him to take. I’m embarrassed that my stomach is kind of round and soft.

“You talk older than me. Are you sure we’re even the same age? And look at your shoulders. How can we be the same genes if we’re different?”

“I practiced ju-jitsu for a while. Plus, there’s the whole nature versus nurture thing.” Hoon’s squatting on one foot like when my mom does yoga and sliding one leg of his jeans off. “You were nurtured, and I wasn’t so much. Not that my parents didn’t try.”

“Then why do you sound smarter?” I pull his T-shirt on. Crooked Crocodile is faded and the detergent smells itchy, but it’s still kind of cool to wear it.

“I’ve just been around older kids more and read different books.” He pulls my polo shirt over his head, and I can see how he would fall for the cleftover thing because he pretty much looks like me now. “Take my jacket in case it cools off later,” he says.

“Like what books?” I try on his jacket, and it makes me feel bigger and tough. In the domes, we don’t ever need jackets.

“All kinds. History, philosophy, biology. Tech stuff too, to build and fix things. Come on and give me your pants.”

“What if your mom notices I’m not you? I don’t know anything about fixing things. I can’t pretend to talk older.”

“It’s OK. My folks know you’re coming.”

“What?” I throw my blue uniform pants on the ground next to my computer bag. “That’s not fair. It’s going to spoil my report. They won’t act natural if they know they’re being observed. It’s the oldest rule in the book.”

“Calm down. You were only going to interview us in the first place, remember? You’ll still be embedded and get a great story.”

“Why did you tell them?” I pull on his jeans even though they don’t look all that clean, and I’m not even sure I want to go through with this anymore.

“It’s like you said, they would never believe you’re me.”

“That proves you’re not my cleftover.”

“No, it doesn’t. The eye scanner will prove I am.” He’s got my pants on now and picks up my computer bag. “Meet me here at 7 A.M. before school tomorrow.”

“How am I going to do my homework without my laptop?”

“I’ll do it for you.”

“Video call me when you feed the fish so I can tell you how.”

“I think I can handle it.”

“Be nice to my parents.”

“Trix, they’re my parents, too, remember?”

+

Hoon’s parents are waiting for me in the lot. They remind me of my grandparents on my mom’s side because they’re white and have gray hair and the lady is tall and plump and the man is shorter and skinny and has a chin that kind of disappears into his long neck.

“Henry, is that you or Hoon?” The lady calls, and they giggle. “We’ve been so excited to meet you. You can call me Rebecca, and this is Ronald. Everyone goes by their first names here, adults and children alike.”

“Isn’t that neat, Henry? Everyone’s considered equal around here.” Hoon’s dad sucks in his bottom lip like he tasted something sour, and it’s like the bottom half of his face goes missing.

They lead me past the paved lot into the flexible housing village to a field with tents in a big circle with vans lined up behind. In the middle of the field, it’s like a cross between a park and a garbage dump, with picnic tables and two fire rings and pots and pans and dishes on these kitchen counters, just sitting right outside. There are trash cans and ropes and ladders and like random equipment. This one part is roped off with rows of some leafy vegetable that’s pretty wilty. I take a couple pics of kids playing with sticks and phones.

“I know it’s not what you’re used to, but I think you’ll really appreciate how we’re a community that looks out for one another. And we have a nice dinner planned for later.”

“Do you really eat worms?”

“Nah, we only serve those to special guests,” No-chin says.

“He’s only pulling your leg. Now let me introduce you around so you can settle in.” Rebecca walks in front of me with her wide bottom shifting from one side to the other in her light blue pants. It looks like she gets plenty to eat unlike some of the others. She leads me to what she calls “the rec tent.” It’s a big whitish one with the flaps on the front side rolled up. Kids sit around on folding chairs and a couple of old couches looking at print books and charging phones and laptops on a metal square hooked up to a big gas tank that smells.

“This is Henry, Hoon’s brother,” Rebecca calls out over the generator. “He’s visiting us from EastBranch9.Dome.”

They all glare at me like I stole their shoes, and I don’t know why she’s blown my cover.

“You stay here for a spell. Ronald and I have some things to take care of. If you need to tinkle or poo, there are porta-potties right around back.”

The kids laugh at me because of what she said, even though I’m pretty sure they pee and poop, too. This one kid waves me over and lets me play Crazy Eights with him and his little sister. They’re younger than me, but I don’t mind.

“Hi, Hoon,” the little girl says.

“Rebecca just said this is Hoon’s brother, dumb buns.”

The little girl squints at me like she can’t see the screen at the front of the classroom. The boy deals seven cards for each of us, and we play. Then this long-haired blackish and gold cat that looks like it’s been in the sun too long walks up and lets me pet it.

“Do you eat cats?” I ask the kid.

“Shut up,” his little sister says. “That’s gross times a hundred.”

“Spades.” The boy lays down an 8. “And you can’t pet Dalia if you think she’s food.”

A while later, someone bangs on a pot, and all the kids run to the circle field, so I follow. Rebecca sits me down next to Ronald at one of the picnic tables. It’s in between day and dark, and they have battery lamps and candles and there’s excited chatting everywhere like in the lunchroom at school. Rebecca walks back and forth and orders these two teenagers to bring food from the counters to the tables.

“Take your share and pass it,” one kid says to me, not all that nice, holding out a platter. I’m relieved that Rebecca yells out, “Alt-chicken pineapple surprise!” I spoon some onto my plastic plate. It looks like normal lab-grown meat, and I can see empty pineapple cans on the counter, but I’m wondering what the surprise is, so I ask Rebecca when she finally sits down next to me.

“Well, Henry, the surprise is that we usually save the pineapple for the Solstice, but we’re having it early because tonight’s special.”

“Here’s to air-tight climate control for the rich!” Some sun-burned guy with a long grey beard yells holding up a can of beer.

I think he’s making fun of the domes. I guess because I’m here?

“We’re celebrating you being here with us.” Ronald leans over with sour breath way too close to my face.

Rebecca pats my thigh. I take a bite, and it’s yummy and not wormy at all.

+

After dinner, Rebecca tells me to go back to the rec tent. Some kids bring a few battery lamps from dinner and do homework with hard books and some use laptops and some play cards still. Most of them ignore me. I find a spot on the ground by the wall, take a couple more pics, and try texting Hoon, but he doesn’t answer. I get nervous and want to text my mom, but then that would be bad because she would know Hoon isn’t me, even though Rebecca knows I’m not Hoon. It’s not fair. I figure I should take some notes for my report and write on my phone about the rec tent and how kids here have more skin shades than in the dome or at my school and about the dinner we just ate, including what that bearded man yelled and the nut butter brownies they passed around for dessert.

When Hoon still won’t text me, I go looking for Rebecca and Ronald. They’re sitting around the table where we ate dinner with some other adults.

“Hoon’s not answering text. I think something’s wrong,” I say.

“Don’t worry about Hoon. He’s got a plan, I assure you,” No-chin says.

“What plan?”

“Hey, aren’t you here to interview us about our lives? Hear our side of the story?” Rebecca reaches over and messes up my hair. “Why don’t we go to the van for some privacy, and I can get you some paper and something to write with.” She shakes her head at Ronald and pulls her legs over the table bench.

“That’s OK. I can take notes on my phone.”

I hold it up to prove my point, and Ronald leans over and snatches it out of my hands.

“I think I’ll hold onto that until morning.”

“Give me my phone back. That’s not fair.”

“Don’t you want to experience life outside in all its realness? Not everyone has access to one of these babies.” Ronald tucks my phone into his skinny pants pocket.

“I didn’t say you could have it, and besides, Hoon has a phone.”

“We’re more fortunate than some.” Rebecca stands up and towers over me. “And we understand you’re scared, Henry. It’s only natural, being in such a different environment. But it might just get too tempting to text your parents, and that would spoil your report, wouldn’t it? Let us help you. We’ll start by going to the van and getting comfortable so we can get down to business. What do you say?” Rebecca holds her hand out for me to take like I’m five.

They lead me to the camper van Hoon showed me before in pics. It’s kind of cool even though I’m mad about my phone. Rebecca says we have to take our shoes off before going inside. Behind the sliding door, it’s like a miniature house with furry-faded purple carpeting and a tiny kitchen and bathroom. I sit on this little couch in the back and tell them about my paper—the one on how if we designed people to be small like fish they wouldn’t need as many resources, and how their van is kind of like that because it’s smaller than a house, so they’re kind of already shrinking.

“Gotta point there, kiddo.” Ronald points a bony finger at me.

Rebecca gives me paper and a pencil and sits in this cushy seat behind the driver’s that swivels away from the windshield to face me. “Ask away,” she says.

“Where did you get Hoon?” I know I’m supposed to ask about their lives as outsiders, but right now I mostly want to know about Hoon and if he’s really a cleftover.

“I think you know the answer to that.”

“The black market?”

“We wanted a son, and I … I wasn’t able to have my own.” Rebecca clears her throat. “So, we worked with some adoption agents that had connections to the labs and saved at least one child from harm while we were at it.”

“You know the facts on the cleftover business, right?” Ronald squats nearby on a carpet-covered hump in the floor that I guess goes over one of the wheels underneath. “All those nice kids discarded by rich people got sold into labor and sex trafficking—”

“Ronald—”

“He’s old enough to know the truth.”

“That could never be legal,” I say.

 “It wasn’t, but it happened anyway, like lots of things that make people money.”

“You’re saying Hoon was a backup from an incubator lab?”

“Same as you, more or less. He was just on the unlucky side of the equation.” Ronald crosses his wiry arms and taps one of his socked feet. I note that my subject has gone on the defensive.

“My Genetics and Surveillance teacher told us that the cleftover claims are misinformation.”

“Is that right?” No-chin’s gray eyebrows go way up, and he whistles like a teakettle. “They probably told you people on the outside should stop procreating for their own good, too, huh?”

“Well, wouldn’t that help? Because people out here are poor?”

“Why should some people get to live in complete safety and comfort while others are nearly destitute?” Rebecca asks in this silky voice, like she’s not arguing even though she sort of is.

“Because they work for it. The people in the domes work for the safety and security of their families.” I know I sound like my dad, but that’s what comes out.

Ronald cackles real sharp like the same extinct bird as Hoon. Maybe that’s where Hoon got it. That would be nurture not nature, but not really nurture either because Ronald’s not nice enough to nurture.

“People here work. We work to survive.” Even Rebecca’s voice gets sharp like the point of my pencil. “You might argue we work a lot harder than those who live inside the domes.”

I write it all down. I’m here to report on the outsider perspective, after all, even if I don’t agree with it.

“I think I’ve heard enough.” No-chin shuffles to the door, climbs outside, and slides the van door shut behind him. I guess I made him mad.

I hear a click like he just locked the doors even though we’re inside. Maybe it’s just a habit. Or did he mean to lock us in? I look at Rebecca. Her eyes are wet under the ceiling light, but she’s not smiling and the quiet is too loud.

“Let’s get back to the interview,” she says and folds her hands in her lap so her bead bracelets clink.

“Why do outsiders make tram jams?”

“It’s the only way we can draw attention to our plight.” Her voice is low and silky again but with a little scratch.

“Could you please describe your plight in detail?”

“Alright then.” Rebecca blinks and smiles but only with her lips. “I know the dome world seems normal to you, but when the first few opened up, they were a novelty—like a new kind of gated community, a new real estate gimmick. At that time, everyone lived in houses and apartments outside. That was the norm. Some people liked the idea of the domes and moved in if they could afford it, especially with all the extreme weather, it made sense. The domes got more and more popular with the different price levels, and now the schools and labs and farms and government and just about anyone and every industry that can afford to has joined in. Some on the outside are still getting by in houses and apartments, but many of us lost our homes, and we’re left to move from place to place, running from floods and fires and everything in between. Most of us can’t afford to give our children genetic enhancements or pay for the schools that give their students an advantage over ours, widening the disparity all the more.” She chews her lower lip and stares at her lap. “And some of us just think it’s wrong to live in a bubble while the rest of the world suffers.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t think a journalist is supposed to apologize, Henry, but I appreciate your wellspring of sympathy.”

She clears her throat and shakes her gray swoop of hair like shewing a fly, and I can’t tell whether she means what she said, but I push on with the tough questions.

“Do you think the tram jams make any real difference? Like, do they make the lives of outsiders better? Will they help you get to move inside a dome?”

“Tell you truth, they’ve done diddly squat to change things so far. That’s why we need to escalate.”

“You mean do something even worse?” I try to imagine what that would be. A homemade bomb big enough to blow up a SunTram station?

“Let’s just say, something that would make our interests much harder to ignore.”

“Like what, for an example?”

“That I can’t tell you. You’ll have to wait and see.” She brushes the thighs of her light blue pants like there are crumbs there even though there aren’t. It makes her bead bracelets clink again, and I think it’s a signal that she wants to end the interview, but I figure I’ve got nothing to lose at this point.

“Do you and Ronald help plan the tram jams?”

“I’m not sure I want that in your report.” She drops her head to the side and smiles big teeth.

“Back to Hoon then. Off the record.”

“OK.” She chuckles like that’s funny and clasps her hands back together, but I’m about to be real serious.

“Isn’t it kind of too much of an odd chance that I would meet my cleftover in a random parking lot because of a tram jam?” I still don’t believe their story, even if Hoon got into EastBranch9.Dome somehow.

“Who said it was by chance?” She leans over and digs a finger into her sock to scratch.

“How wouldn’t it be?”

“We know what tram you ride every afternoon.” She sits back up, and her voice is even cooler and lower and kind of scares me.

“What?” I kind of laugh. “No way. Like you planned the whole thing just for me?”

“It would’ve been a successful jam either way, but the increased chance that we could connect Hoon to you was a bonus.”

“That’s crazy.” I feel my throat go dry and my heartbeat under Hoon’s Crooked Crocodile T-shirt. “I could’ve stayed in the back of the crowd and never even met Hoon.” My voice comes out higher than I want.

“You could’ve, but we predicted you’d be curious like Hoon. It was partly left to chance, but every once in a long while, fate decides to smile upon us outsiders, too, I suppose.”

“Your plan had me in it.” I tap the pencil against my papers. It doesn’t all add up, and I feel like I can’t catch my breath.

“Hoon has been researching his origins for several years now. He’s like you. He investigates things, and we helped him because we believe in the truth.”

“I want my phone back. I want to go home now.” I’m pretty sure these people are up to something bad.

“Those aren’t options, Henry, but I promise we aren’t going to hurt you.”

I try the door, but Ronald locked it for real.

“Let me out!” I yell at Rebecca, but she just shakes her head. I climb over the seats to the front and try the other doors. I press the button in the armrest of the driver’s seat, but somehow, they’ve got the locks locked down. “What’s going on?” I scream.

“You’ll be safer here inside. Just like home.”

“Are you people trying to do something bad to my mom and dad?” I start shaking and crying.

Rebecca pulls out a Reese’s Peanut Buttercup from her jacket pocket and holds it out to me in her palm, like that makes it all OK. I climb back over the front seats into the back and knock it out of her hand. I try the side door again and bang on the window and shout for someone to let me out, but no one does. I go back to the couch in the back and bury my head under a pillow and try to hide my crying. A real reporter would never cry, but I can’t help it.

After a while, Rebecca comes over and covers me with a blanket. She says, “Try and get some sleep. I’m sorry it had to be like this.”

+

I wake up from a dream that was like a cleftover war movie with machine guns. I guess because rain pelts the roof of the van. No one’s in here but me. I try the door, and it slides right open. I look outside and see people putting things away and getting wet. The ground is already soaked and pooling, and I see those worms I’ve heard about wriggling in the dirt and grass, but no one’s eating them. Not yet at least.

I put on my shoes, get my notes from the interview, and tuck them under my T-shirt to try and keep them dry. Then I run to the circle field where more people move equipment in the rain. I don’t know what time it is, but I take off in the direction of StateGov.Dome station to meet Hoon. Before I get very far, Rebecca and Ronald are standing in front of me with a tarp over their heads.

“You’re going to get wet there, Henry,” No-chin gurgles.

“Wouldn’t you like some breakfast, hun?” Rebecca shouts over the crazy rain.

“Want your phone back, there fella?” Ronald teases, holding it up and swallowing the bottom half of his face.

I go up to him and grab it out of his hand. “I’m supposed to meet Hoon by the station and swap clothes back.”

“Hoon came home late last night, but we didn’t want to wake you, so he slept on his cot in the rec tent. Hurry up now and grab a bite to eat. Say hello.” Rebecca waves a finger toward the rec tent and Ronald looks at his watch.

I run through the wind blowing rain in my face to the tent where it’s crowded with adults and kids eating food bars and sipping from Styrofoam cups. It smells like sour coffee and gas. I’m like soaked at this point, and I can’t believe Hoon didn’t stay true to our plan. I see him sitting on one of the couches with people standing around asking him questions. He waves at me and takes a bite of food bar. I push my way up next to him, on the other side of the armrest that’s got a big rip in the fabric and yellow spongy stuff breaking off.

“What happened? You wouldn’t text.”

“My phone died.” He shrugs and smiles. I hate it when he shrugs and smiles.

“You could’ve plugged it in.” I look at my own phone, and it’s dead. I look at Hoon, and he takes another bite of his food bar. “Did you feed my fish?”

“Your fish are fine,” he says with his mouth full. “The one thing I can tell you is that your fish are fine.” He hands me my computer bag from between his feet.

“So, you got in?”

“Of course. It sure is nice inside all that air-tight climate control.”

People around us laugh, but then the whole place goes quiet except for the generator and the news on someone’s radio. A reporter says, “EastBranch9.Dome discovered this morning—”

“Are they talking about my dome?” I ask Hoon as wind shakes one side of the tent.

He just listens with his smirk and doesn’t say anything. A few people give me a look like my fly is unzipped, so I check, but it’s zipped.

The man on the news says, “The governor hasn’t officially declared it an act of terror, but carbon monoxide inside an air-tight dome? That’s got outsider activist fingerprints all over it if you ask me, Lisa.”

“I think you’re probably right, Joe, but it’s time for the forecast, and it’s not looking pretty for anyone who has to be outside this week.”

People mumble, and I want to ask Hoon what carbon monoxide is, but I’m tired of him acting like the one who knows everything, and obvi, it’s not something good.

“Hey trix, you can stay with me and my folks if you want.” Hoon looks at me like he means it and even like he’s sorry for not keeping our plan. “We’ll be out of here in a few, heading for higher ground. Grab a food bar and come with us.”

I hear sirens wailing somewhere, coming closer.

“We all need to get the hell out of here ASAP,” some bearded adult yells from across the tent.

I push my way through the crowd and take off running to the station as fast as I can. I look over my shoulder and see Ronald behind me in the lot, but he can’t keep up, and when I get to the trees, no one’s behind me except the downpour whipping my back. Inside the station, police are all over with those big-black sniff dogs. They don’t like you to pet them either. I go to the eastward platform because there’s no way I can go to school still wearing Hoon’s clothes. I wonder if my parents will be mad that I lost a uniform set. I guess Hoon still has it. At least I can get an excused absence from school and not get in trouble for not doing all my homework. Plus, I want to know what happened to our dome.

The station is packed because the trams aren’t coming, and it’s hard to understand all the scratchy announcements over people talking. Finally, a tram comes, and I cram on, but then they hold it in the station forever, and some people are crying and reading their phones. I check mine again, but of course it’s still dead.

When I exit at EastBranch9.Dome station, the entrance to the dome from the platform is blocked with yellow tape and all these police in blue and medics in orange walk back and forth. I tug on the yellow sleeve of a SunTram staff man and tell him I live there. I look into the eye scanner, and my face comes up on the screen with my name next to the word, Resident. The man looks at me funny and takes me to sit in a small room with no windows. A lady police comes in. She tells me I’m all wet, but I know that already. She tells me something bad happened. She says I was lucky I wasn’t home last night and asks me why I wasn’t. I explain how I stayed in a van in the flexible housing village for my investigative report. I pull out my notes, but the paper is soaked and smudged. I don’t tell about Hoon, even though I kind of want to, because I don’t want to get him in trouble for sneaking into the dome even though I’m mad at him. The lady police types stuff into her tablet, and the SunTram man brings in waffles and syrup in a plastic box, but I don’t want them. I want to go home and see my parents and have normal raisin toast with soy spread. They tell me that’s not possible, but they’ll try to get me some dry clothes.

Then some other lady dressed like a teacher comes in with a hair dryer and towels and a blanket. She says she’s sorry she doesn’t have any clothes for me and tries blowing me dry while I towel off. Then she starts with questions all over again. She says, kind of like I’m in trouble, that they have on the scanner record that I came home last night. I start to cry because I don’t want to tell on Hoon, but she keeps asking like I’m the one who did something wrong, so finally I say how Hoon wanted to switch places and I didn’t believe him, but he must really be my cleftover because it worked.

She gets real stiff and enters it all on her tablet. She goes out of the room and comes back in a few minutes with the lady police and a man police, too. He stands by the door with his arms crossed. The teacher-like lady says I’m not in trouble, though. I tell her I want to go home so my parents can get me an excused absence from school. She tells me that outsiders poisoned the air inside the dome, and she’s really sorry about it, and they’re contacting my grandparents. I say I want to see my fish. She says we can go see my fish later, but right now I have to be patient because they have to air out the dome to make it safe and collect evidence, and do I understand that no one survived? I start screaming at her and the others to let me go home, and the man police grabs me and holds me tight while the lady police sticks my arm with a needle.

I wake up still in the room but lying down with the scratchy blanket over me that smells like adult cologne, and the teacher-like lady is there and gives me orange drink and says my grandparents are at the house now and can come get me. I say I walk to my house by myself from the tram every day. She says she can go with me. I say I know the way, but she still comes.

I’d already forgotten how blue the noon sky is in EastBranch9.Dome. The white brick shops by the station are closed, but the maples in front of the houses are busy turning red and gold and their leaves speckle the thick green grass. It’s the first time I ever noticed how silky and thick the grass is here. It obvi has enhancements unlike that yellow patchy stuff outside, and I kind of want to roll around on it like a cat. It’s so quiet though. The whole dome is creepy quiet, except for this whirring sound like big fans. None of the neighbors are around, and all these police and medics go in and out of the houses wearing masks and gloves. They bring out stretchers with lumps under orange blankets and slide them into the backs of vans, and the teacher-like lady tries pointing out the rows of flowers in front of the houses so I won’t notice, but I do. I see Mittens, this gold cat with white paws that lives up the street, sleeping in the front walkway. A medic in big boots steps right over her, and she doesn’t run off or move even a little, so maybe she’s not sleeping, and I guess it’s all my fault.

Mama J and Papa J are out front by the maple tree when we come into the cul-de-sac. I run ahead of the lady, and they hug me tight and smell like old sheets and ginger cookies. I ask where my parents are even though what the lady said. Mama J tells me they’ve taken them away while she brushes my bangs back. She says they’re resting now. She says they’ll be staying asleep for a long, long time. Then she starts shaking and sniffling. Papa J says they are here for me always and places his hand on my head and pulls me and Mama J close. I feel like I’m going to cry, but I want to check on my fish, and they let me run upstairs.

Hoon was right. All the fish are OK. I look in through the side and watch them swim around their water dome like there’s no trouble anywhere in the world. The neon tetra shimmer blue and red, and Angel Eyes surveys everything like a queen. Oscar comes near the glass and looks at me. His mouth widens and shrinks, widens and shrinks. After a while, Mama J calls for me to come downstairs. Oscar can’t hear her. But he can see me, so I tell him it’s going to be OK, but of course he can’t hear me either. Maybe he can read lips though. His eyes are wide like he’s wondering what all the excitement is about. I tap on the glass, and he swims away. I turn on the fish cam and put on my 3D glasses. I want to see what Oscar sees. I go past the zebrafish and steer up to where Oscar was before he swam off and try to look at myself through the fish cam. I only see the blue light of the camera lens and the little metal propellers spinning in the glass. I see how Oscar’s big eyes weren’t looking at me, not really, because all you can see from inside the aquarium is your own reflection. Duh.

About the Author

Troy Ernest Hill

Twitter Website Instagram LinkedIn

Troy Ernest Hill earned an MFA in creative writing at The City College of New York, where he won The Doris Lippman Prize in Creative Writing for a novel in progress and The Stark Award in Drama for his play, “Sweet Dreams.” His work has appeared in Lethe Press’ Best Gay Stories 2017, The Bangalore Review, The Hamilton Stone Review, Sobotka Literary Magazine, The Promethean, and Underground Voices. His play, “Home Again,” was produced by 91 LLC at the Abingdon Theatre in New York City.