of the characters below are the property of WB and the Wachowski brothers. I am
not intending to pass them off as my own creation, nor am I profiting in any
way from the publication of this story.
Rated R for language, content, drug use, and violence.
This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds
it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of
its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are
wrong, of course, but it doesn't matter. It's too late. At least on the edge of
my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers of my town, it's much, much, much
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
While waiting outside for a ride to the funeral, I saw a bird fly into a closed window in the upstairs of our house. The Kansas landscape was stark and unforgiving, a black bruise in the morning -- stopped dead at eight o'clock by the bird that had thrown itself at our glass window.
I knew then that this was my fault.
Two weeks before my father had taken me out in the field with him to show me how the crops were failing. "I don't know what's going on, Reese," he said to me. "It's like someone's poisoned the corn."
I didn't know what to say. The sky stretched, so wide and unblinking above me, and it formed a cup over our slice of land. Corn stalks reached up, finally met the sky at the horizon. Withering and sick, the plants pricked my arm as I went by. And I didn't know why my daddy was telling me these things. It seemed to me that he should have been telling my mother.
And on the morning of the funeral I crept over to see where the bird had landed. It was dead and still, its crooked wing reaching for the sky, its feet retracted, its head rolling over to the side. More bad luck. This bad luck was my fault -- I had brought it on all of us. On New Year's, I'd gone out first despite my mother's protests. "Let your father go out first," she said. "It's bad luck for a girl to go outside on New Year's Day before a man." But Cecilia and I had decided to go anyway, taking pots and pans to bang loudly so that passing cars might hear us -- or even the neighbors who lived a mile and a half away.
And then I had opened an umbrella in the house in April. And Ceel had started coming inside through our bedroom window. Bad luck soaked the foundation of our house, made the weather turn bad, made the crops go foul. And then it hit my dad -- one day out in the field he went into insulin shock. We couldn't revive him.
So on the day of the funeral, I brought a newspaper out to cover the dead bird, so that the relatives might not see. This was my sin -- inviting bad luck into our lives that year. When you grow up in Kansas, you learn that life is just stretches of luck, both good and bad, changeable and fickle as the Midwestern weather.
* * *
Neo asks me
what's wrong. He's been lingering over me, watching me work for the past half
"You're so quiet," he says. "You know, you don't have to be so quiet."
"You and Tank have done great work on this mapping project," I say, pointing to the computer monitor. Despite his being the One, I'm still his superior. "I'm quite amazed by it."
He comes over and bends down, hugs me from behind and whispers in my ear: "That's not what I mean."
Later, when we're in bed together, I'm drifting off to sleep when his arm reaches out and wraps around my waist. It's as though he's pulling me back to him. "Trinity. What do you want?"
"I want what you want," I say resolutely.
"I want to give you what you want."
But what do I want? For a long time I simply wanted him, I thought that might solve everything. But here it is, months later, and we're only a little closer to winning the war. The oracle told me that this would take time, probably years, but I'm restless. I cling to him, my leg still aching from a recent injury in the Matrix.
"You know you can tell me anything," he whispers in my ear. I feel his lips against my cheek. "Tell me things. In the Matrix, who were you?"
I try to inch away from him, but the bed is small. "That doesn't matter."
"Trinity." He tightens his grip around me. "I need you. In that other world, shit, we could have walked right past one another. Have you ever though about it?"
I shake my head. "No. We couldn't have known each other."
"Why not? Give me a good reason."
I try to roll over and turn away from him, but he stops me. "You're trying to trick me into talking," I say.
"What's wrong with that?" He's smiling in the dark. "Look -- you know everything about me. You watched me, you saw how I lived. And I love you. Don't you think it's time you told me where you came from?"
"I'm Trinity," I say. "I've always been Trinity. It doesn't matter where I came from."
I feel him draw away from me. And oh God, I've hurt him. "Neo . . ." I say. After a few minutes of silence I inhale and decide to begin. I suppose it's time to level with him. "I grew up in Kansas. On a farm. My father died the summer I was twelve. My mother died shortly after that. My sister and I --"
"Wait --" he says, "how did they die?"
I take a deep breath and try to slow down. "My father was a diabetic. One day, out in the field, he had some sort of the seizure. He went into shock and died." I close my eyes, trying to shut out the image of his gold tags flashing in the hot sun as we tried to revive him. "I don't know how my mother died," I said quietly, though I do know. "One day she just didn't wake up. The paramedics came and took the body away and never told me anything." I'm glad it's dark because I don't want Neo to see my face. This makes me sad -- I've rarely thought about it during these years here.
His hand reaches up to touch my face. "I'm sorry."
All these years I've tried to convince myself that they weren't really my parents. But what were they, then? "My sister and I were sent to live with our aunt in Los Angeles. She wasn't that great. Within a year she'd left us to go off with this motorcycle gang. So my sister and I tried to take care of things for a while, but the bills piled up and the neighbors knew we lived alone. Someone called social services. And that was it," I finish.
"Not much," I lie, "just a lot of foster homes. And Morpheus fished me out when I was sixteen."
Now I'm the one reaching up to touch his cheek. "They're not as bad as everyone says. Some were actually nice. Don't believe all the horror stories you hear." I kiss his eyelid and settle back down in bed. I pretend I'm sleeping until I hear his breathing grow steady beside me. But my mind is still spinning. I'm thinking of all the things I didn't tell him about, all the things I left behind.
* * *
Cecilia was the talkative child, the shining performer, and I was the one who mainly stayed in the background. People thought I was slow and stupid, but when I was in the background I was counting. Counting the bricks on the wall, the ants on the pavement, the books on the shelf. I had no use for books -- only for numbers, and behind my eyelids I imagined numbers that stretched off into the distance with no end, just like our land. Without a pencil or calculator, I figured the number of circles on our wallpaper and the number dots on my ceiling. For fun I multiplied or divided everything by my age.
I was nine when I figured the amount of fertilizer we'd need to keep our crops healthy. I took my ruler and measured a small piece of land, then looked up how much land we had in all. Using my standard plot, I figured out how many corn plants we had, and how much fertilizer they needed. I wrote the number, in pounds, on a slip of paper and gave it to my father. He studied it.
"Reese, where did you get this?"
I shrugged. "I just figured it out."
"Is this some kind of math project for school?"
"No," I said and told him in detail how I'd gotten the answer. He asked for my figuring sheet and I told him I didn't have one. I did everything in my head.
That night I was sitting in the living room pretending to watch TV. I was really listening to my parents as they discussed me in the kitchen.
"Annie, I think Reese may be gifted," my father said.
"Gifted? Our Therese? How could that be?" My mother put dishes in the sink to let them soak overnight. "She gets all Cs in school. The teachers are always writing notes about how she doesn't apply herself or listen in school."
He showed my mother the slip of paper. "She came up with how much fertilizer we need simply by measuring a few plots of land."
My mother waved her hand dismissively. "Oh Tom, she probably went through your papers in the office and found the number."
"Reese," my father called to me. I looked up. "What's sixteen times twenty-three?"
I waited a second before answering. "Three hundred and sixty-eight."
My father walked over to the drawer and took out a calculator. "She's right," he said after punching the numbers in. He showed my mother.
"What's forty-one times a hundred sixty?"
"Six-thousand, five-hundred and sixty," I answered, this time without waiting.
My father showed the calculator to my mother again.
"I'll be damned," she said. "When I was a kid I hated math."
The teachers were skeptical at first too, until my father came in and made me show them what I could do. They still didn't buy it. So they gave me some kind of test and I got all of the math questions right.
My dad thought I should be skipped ahead in school, but my mom wasn't so keen on the idea. "Reese has a hard enough time as it is," she said. "She has no friends."
The teachers wouldn't hear of it. "She may be an advanced math student," the principal said, "but she's reading an entire level below her current grade." The principal twirled his pencil around his fingers and looked oddly pleased. They weren't going to move me ahead, or even give me special math lessons.
My father was distressed to hear that I was doing poorly in reading and writing. That summer he took me out into the field with him -- as a result I learned how to handle most of the farm equipment and tend to the crops. Out there, where no one could hear us, he recited poems and stories. "Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness," he sang, "Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun." We read Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. At night he read to me as I drifted off to sleep, imagining the corn as it grew and ripened on the stalks. In my mind I could see the stalks, then the husks, and then the kernels as I shucked them off, piled them in golden hills, perfect like sunlight.
When school started again I was reading at grade level and my father decided to have me transferred to a private Catholic school twenty miles away on the outskirts of Kansas City. "I want to go to a special school too," Cecilia objected. She was eight, a year younger than I was.
"We'll have to send them both," my father said. He was a great proponent of fairness. Despite my mother's protests that the tuition would be too expensive, my dad made arrangements and had the bus swing by our farm. At six o'clock on the first day of school, my father waited with us down the road, carrying Cecilia in his arms because she was still sleepy.
In the new school I didn't make friends, but I got along okay with my city classmates. They were used to hearing cars go by at all times of the night and neighbors who kept them awake with slamming doors and barking dogs. They saw cornfields only when their travels took them outside city limits. I had nothing in common with them.
I had less in common with them when I was put in with sixth graders to take my math class. The sixth grade boys jeered, the girls smirked and whispered about me. But that was okay -- I was in my glory, learning about how numbers could be broken up into fractions and decimals. I quickly picked up percentages, and hurriedly rushed to learn negatives. Numbers didn't just go on forever into infinity, they went backwards into infinity too. I imagined them rewinding themselves like the tapes in our new VCR.
By fifth grade I was doing pre-algebra, then some algebra. I took classes in the summer to start on geometry. When I was eleven I started working at the store my parents managed. It was down the road from our farm. I helped the customers and took inventory. Without a calculator, I balanced the books and kept track of our earnings. "There's nothing she can't do," my father told my mother. "Reese is brilliant."
"Lonely though," my mother said. This was another time when they thought I wasn't listening. "Cecilia has so many friends! Therese is so busy with her school work that she hardly takes the time to talk to us."
"Give her time," my father said. "Reese will come around and show everyone what she's made of."
I loved my father more than anyone, loved him for the faith he had in me. In the summer I helped in the fields and my skin turned brown, while my sister stayed inside and put on plays for our parents. When my father didn't know I was there, I watched him as he wandered into the fields each night. He always went to the same spot and looked up. I figured he was counting the stars as I liked to do -- I didn't know what else he might be looking for. Now I think I know.
* * *
When Neo and I are apart, I count the seconds. Never are seconds and minutes so long. The night passes us quickly and then we are separated during the day -- the waiting begins. We have to get things done, after all. I have to force myself to put Neo out of my mind, forget the nights we share together.
Sentinel attacks are the worst when they come at night. Frightened and shaking, we have to pull on our clothes and cross over into that other world. That's what's it like, another world. When Neo and I come together, we're in our own world. Everything else falls away and I finally understand who I am. But when sentinels come, they ruin all of that.
Last time I was afraid. I stood in the cockpit with Morpheus and Link, watching as the machines searched the murky depths for our ship. I could feel Neo's breath on my neck. He stood behind me. I shut my eyes, so afraid for him. I couldn't look at those machines anymore because I knew what Neo was up against. Terror. Tyranny. I can't stand the thought of losing him -- it makes me physically sick.
He found my hand, his fingers tentatively weaving through mine. "Relax," he whispered, his voice barely audible. "It's going to be okay."
* * *
Things weren't okay the summer I was twelve. First my father died, dropping off his tractor in the mid-day heat and going into shock on the ground. I was there. I ran to the house, screaming, trying to get help. Mom called the ambulance and I ran to bring him some juice, but I was too late. Cecilia wailed the entire time, as if she had been the daughter who helped in the fields and ran the store. I could do nothing but stare at the sun, shocked and open-mouthed, waiting for an explanation. On the morning of the funeral when I saw the bird throw itself at our window, I knew it was my fault.
The night after the funeral I couldn't sleep. I got out of bed, padded down the hall and heard my mother crying. I stood in the doorway. "What is it?" I asked.
My mother looked up, papers in her lap. "Maria Therese." My full name. "It's nothing. Just go back to bed."
"Is it about the money?"
She looked up as if she was seeing me for the first time. "Yes."
We were running low. In March a storm had destroyed our barn and we had to dip into our savings to replace it. Then there were the crops, the bad weather. The plants' leaves had dark spots on them and the corn was growing all wrong. Rotting on the stalk. I knew these things. I was the one who helped my father with the expenses.
"Ceel and I will quit going to the city for school," I said. "I'll put in more hours at the store so you can lay off the help. We can take out loans."
My mother shook her head, her face worn with lines that had appeared overnight. "We have a bad credit record. And no one's lending these days."
I crawled into bed with her that night, and when I woke up her hands were curled up under my chin.
A week later I was working at the store in the afternoon. A blue car pulled into the dirt parking lot and a man and a woman in suits stepped out. I held my breath. We never got customers who looked like that -- maybe they'd buy out the whole store.
They stepped inside and took off their shades. "Hello, young lady," the man said to me. "Is Tom Martindale available to talk to us?"
I shrugged and went back to sorting price tags.
The man tried again. "This is the store that belongs to Tom Martindale, right?"
I stopped sorting and looked up. "He's dead," I whispered.
The two exchanged long glances and hurried whispers. The man spoke, "Well, I'm certainly sorry to hear that. Are you his daughter?"
I nodded slowly. "Who’re you?"
The man pulled his lips into a small grin. "We're from the city. We need to talk to your mother. Is she around?"
I turned and pointed. "She's up at the house. Why do you need to see her?"
The woman and man turned to leave. "It's a private matter," she said.
After they left I closed the store early. I knew that something wasn't right. By the time I'd walked up the road and back to the house, the blue car was pulling away, leaving tracks in the dust. I ran inside to find my mother bent over the sink. "Who was that?"
She turned to look at me, her face stained with tears. "The IRS."
I felt the air leave my chest. "What do they want?"
"They were here before your father died as well," she said. "He wouldn't tell me what it was about." She took me by the arms. "Therese, no matter what they say, I want you to know that your father was a good man."
"What? What are they saying?"
"It's about the store. They're saying he didn't pay what he owed."
"Jesus, Mom," I said, able to cut through the bullshit. I clenched my fists to keep from sobbing. "They're saying Dad cheated on his taxes?"
She nodded. "For the last seven years."
I shook my head. For the first time I felt the tears start at the back of my eyes. "No, it couldn't be--"
"Therese, try not to think of this. Just remember that he loved you."
I backed into the counter. "No Mom, there's no way. No way. He was so honest. I watched him at the store and when he balanced the checkbook. I kept track of things." I tried to wrench away from her but she kept holding onto me.
"Honey, sometimes people do things because they want the best for their families."
"No," I said and tore away from her. "I knew him! He wouldn't do that!" I hit the back door and kept moving, running to the fields to cry among the corn stalks. In a few minutes I stumbled across my sister, balled up in the middle of the corn and crouching on the ground.
She looked up at me. Her face was as wet as mine. "What?" she said. "You thought you were the only one who ever came out here to cry?"
I sat down next to her and traced my initials in the dust.
"Well?" she said. "Aren't you going to tell me what all this is about? Why Mom's so upset? Why those people came to our house?"
I inhaled the dust. It was loose and dry, crumbling like clumps of hardened sugar. Bad dirt for growing crops, the type of dirt that could give way and swallow up your whole house. "They're from the government," I explained. "The store is getting audited."
"What's that?" Cecilia asked.
"It's when the tax people show up and ruin your life."
We watched them then, watched them take everything. If the IRS didn't get it, the bank came and made sure it got taken. They got the car, the TV. Shut down the store. Cecilia looked terrible, her blond hair tangled and wrapping around her unhappy face as we watched from the field. We put a sign up in front of our house: For Sale. Autumn arrived and we harvested nothing from our wide fields. We were selling the farm, planning to move to the city. My mom applied for some kind of welfare. Now we were going to be poor.
"I don't want to be poor," Cecilia whined as she put her old dolls into a box. Our old transistor radio played the Eagles.
"Tough it out," I said. "In the Soviet Union everybody's poor."
"Not everybody." Ceel paused to look at herself in a hand held mirror. At eleven she was already sneaking make-up from our mother's bathroom. She was going to be pretty, the sort of shining, petite prettiness that boys liked. She had pale hair that hung down in layers, framing her face. Her eyes were wide and green. We couldn't have looked less alike.
"Are you finished packing?" I said. "It's your turn to make dinner."
"Oh Reese," Cecilia groaned. "I'm too tired to cook. Why doesn't Mom cook anymore?"
Our mother had confined herself to her room during that dark season. She only came out at night to supervise what we had packed during the day. I dumped a bunch of old records in a box, sick of my sister's complaining. "Fine," I sighed. "I'll do it. You owe me two night's of cooking."
I stalked down the hall to see if my mother wanted me to thaw the fish sticks that we hadn't eaten the night before. Her door was slightly ajar, and I could see the green of her bedspread. I pushed forward and stepped into the room. My mother lay on her side, her back towards me, her figure covered in an old blanket. She was inert. I didn't even hear breath, and I knew something was wrong. "Mom," I whispered and went to the edge of the bed. "Mom." I shook her shoulder and her arms spun outward. Her right hand clenched an empty bottle of sleeping pills. From her left hand, a rosary fell. I slipped the empty bottle in my pocket and went to tell Cecilia to call the paramedics.
My world unraveled. Bad luck turned to bad memories. In my memory, everything about that time is grainy and undefined. I seemed to sleep for days and wake up only for the necessary, important things. I opened my eyes to see my aunt's small, rotting house in Los Angeles. I shut them again when my caseworker said good-bye. Then my aunt was yelling at me. I'd let her skinny dog out and he'd jumped the fence. I'd ruined dinner by leaving it on the stove for too long. I didn't pick up her boyfriend's shoes, so she tripped on them and nearly broke her neck. That time she swatted at me, her sweaty hand nearly coming in contact with my face.
There were loud parties at our house. During the night I kept the door to our room locked and told Cecilia there was nothing to worry about. But I was afraid, afraid of the drunk men and what they might do to us. I might have grown up on a farm, but I wasn't naive. I gave the bed to Ceel and slept on the floor with an old blanket. Knees pulled up to my chest, I gripped my mother's rosary and cried quietly, only allowing myself to sleep when things grew quiet and people left the house. I didn't know how to pray.
I slept all day at school, quickly falling behind, barely blinking when grades came out and I had straight Fs. Math wasn't even fun anymore. What was the point? I'd done these exercises two years before, sweeping through entire texts without much effort. Now the teachers wanted to tell me that I didn't even know how to add the duckies and subtract the bunnies. My mother's face rose above my history book. She had never hit me or blamed me for letting the dog run away. And my father . . . I put my head down on the desk and tried to conceal the fact that I was crying.
Next thing I knew, I sitting in the guidance counselor's office, wearing my mismatched thrift store blouse and skirt. I stared at my cheap pair of canvas keds.
Mr. Silverman had a soft, assuring voice, but that didn't make me want to tell him anything. I'd been summoned to his office because of my academic problems and lousy conduct. Now he looked over my records. "Your former teachers in Kansas City speak highly of you," he said. "You want to tell me why you don't want to work at our school?"
I just stared at my shoes.
He gave me a test -- the same test they gave me in fourth grade when my father went to the school and insisted that I was gifted. Some IQ test. I breezed through it in less than fifty minutes and gave it back to him.
The next day he pulled me out of my assigned seventh grade classroom. The kids jeered and made noises as I walked to the door. I knew what was coming and I didn't care.
"Therese," he said when he had me in his office. "They call you Reese, right? Well, your score came back from the test you took yesterday."
I raised my eyebrows.
"I don't know what to say. I'm extremely shocked. You're a very bright girl -- actually, 'bright' is putting it mildly. You shouldn't be in seventh grade, but in high school already. You need to be challenged." He took out my file again. "My goodness, geometric proofs in the sixth grade." He leafed through the file, scrutinizing things that he'd barely glanced at before. "What happened in reading and English?"
My mediocre grades in the humanities. I got straight Cs in history and Bs in reading and English, only thanks to the time my father devoted to coaching me in those subjects.
I shrugged. I wasn't stupid -- I simply disliked books. Books dealt with people and people were messy. All of those emotions and thoughts running all over the place. Not like math, where everything was in a straight line, everything was perfect. Six always came after five, there was no other way. The only stories I like were the ones my father had read to me as a child, stories about Alice on the other side of the mirror and Dorothy spinning around in her house like a top. These characters lived in different worlds -- they didn't have to live with their aunt in Los Angeles and go to school where only a fourth of the students had English as their first language.
He put my file down on the table. "It must be awfully difficult for you," he said kindly.
I tried not to pay attention. If I let my mind wander to my problems, I might start crying in front of the counselor. I couldn't do that.
"I understand you live with your aunt now," he said. "How's that?"
"Fine," I answered, trying not to choke.
"Does she treat you okay?"
Mr. Silverman sat back in his chair. "I'm going to see what I can do about getting you into some high school math classes. Maybe some extra tutoring. The high school is right across the field, so I don't see why we couldn't arrange something for you. I’m afraid putting you in a gifted class would still not be challenging enough." He looked up at me again. "Are you sure there isn't anything else?"
I took a deep breath. "I don't eat lunch. I mean, I want to, but we don't have any . . . my sister and I . . ."
"Oh, that's the problem," Mr. Silverman said, reaching in his drawer for a slip of paper. "That's no big deal. Many of our students are on an assisted meal plan. Take this paper home and have your aunt fill it out."
He handed me the sheet and I glanced over it. It needed the incomes of the primary providers of the family. "I can't do that. My aunt -- she'll never fill it out."
Mr. Silverman glanced at me suspiciously. He took the form back. "Don't worry, Reese. If that's the case, I'll straighten it out."
Two days later I was walking home with Cecilia and she pinched me on the back through my shirt. "Thanks a lot, Reese. Now I'm a charity girl."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"You couldn't just live with it, could you? The counselor got me out class to give me a free meal ticket. I coulda survived without lunch, but I guess you couldn't. I just didn't want to be a charity kid."
But she wasn't the one who stayed up all night. I needed to eat.
* * *
All of this was a really long time ago. You see why I can't tell Neo. He'd take it out of context, maybe even feel sorry for me. Besides, we've all had rough lives. You just have to let it go and keep moving if you want to accomplish anything. I made a pact with myself years ago that I wouldn't let the past affect how I live my life in the resistance. Tank and I are close, but we've never even talked about our former lives. Morpheus knows more than anyone about me, but he came into my life later. We certainly never talk about it.
Sometimes I watch Neo when he's not watching me. He doesn't know I'm there. He'll be bent over the center counsel, studying the code. I wonder how it looks in his eyes. I wonder how he sees me -- how I look in the real world as opposed to the Matrix.
Yesterday he spotted me out of the corner of his eye. He was alone in the core, working on one of the computers. Without looking up, he asked me, "So what happened to your sister?"
I took a breath and stepped forward. "What?"
"Your sister. You told me you had a sister."
I lingered over one of the chairs. "Did you have a sister?"
He hit one of the screens and it resigned itself to darkness. "No. I had no brothers or sisters."
I nodded and pressed my hand to my stomach. "I don't know what happened to her," I said quietly. "I'm sure she's done just fine without me."
"Don't underestimate your effect on someone, Trinity."
I dropped my hand and turned away. "I'll see you later," I whispered and left the core.
* * *
Aunt Sarah was what my mother would have called a hard woman. She drank constantly and smoked several packs a day. The scent of marijuana was part of the house, something you smelled immediately when you hit the door. The couch was dusted with it.
I don't know what Aunt Sarah did. She got money for taking us in, but she certainly never spent any on us. "I think she's a truck driver," Cecilia said.
"Don't be ridiculous," I replied. "She's home too often."
"UPS, I mean. Or maybe she works at the post office."
Her boyfriend, Wayne, was a constant fixture at our house. He had a ponytail and left his shoes lying in front of the room while he watched TV and slept on the couch. Because he worked at the liquor store, he was able to smuggle out a few bottles each night for Sarah and his friends. They came over and drank, then took off to ride motorcycles. I was a bit horrified to be related to Aunt Sarah -- I didn't understand how we might share the same genes.
School was my escape. Though it was horrible, I found peace in the library or in unoccupied classrooms. Once a day I walked over to the high school for my math lessons. Now I was up to trigonometry, which I enjoyed. Though I'd previously turned up my nose at the thought of using a calculator, I now understood that using one could save me time.
At home I cooked baked beans and hamburgers. Once a week we went out for McDonald's or fried chicken. Once every few months, if we nagged her at the appropriate time, Sarah took us shopping for new clothes. Ceel and I were growing quickly and in need of new shoes and pants. "You're going to be tall," Sarah said. "It'll be a pain in the ass finding things that fit you." We got things from yard sales and thrift stores. If we were lucky, we got to glean things from the outlet nearby. My sister and I traded clothes that almost matched. Usually we looked terrible. We looked poor.
Cecilia and I learned quickly that if we wanted anything done, we had to do it ourselves. No one would iron our clothes unless we did it ourselves, and if we didn't do the dishes on a regular basis, they would pile up in the sink and attract roaches. If we wanted to eat, we searched the cupboard for something edible -- usually tuna and potatoes. More than once I snuck a few bills from her wallet so I could go on a field trip or buy a few groceries. My father cheated and stole, I thought to myself. This is just who I am. But one day Sarah found me sneaking a greasy five from her wallet. She twisted my arm around and slammed me against the doorway.
My father cheated and stole. It's just who I am.
I no longer thought of my parents as the safe beacons of my past. They had done this awful thing to me -- this was their fault. My father had made us poor, and my mother killed herself so as not to own up to the consequences. They had abandoned us. Inside I railed against them, anger prickling around in me like sour milk.
That spring I was thirteen. A few times a week I wore a yellow sundress Sarah had gotten for me at a garage sale. It was hopelessly skimpy and hadn't been in style since the late '70s. Kids sneered at me when I wore it, but I had little else to wear. One day I was washing dishes in the kitchen when Wayne came in from work. He was lugging the usual bottle of hard liquor in a paper bag. I pointedly ignored him, as usual. When Wayne noticed me he either stared or asked stupid questions.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Dishes," I said quietly. I moved over to the counter to dry them, and suddenly Wayne was standing behind me. He grabbed me fiercely from behind, mashing his hands against my breasts. I felt his breath on my neck, could smell the grease on him. I wrenched away and ran out of the kitchen. And then I was in the bathroom, closing the door and locking it.
Wayne started banging on the door. Oh shit, I thought, because no one was home but me and Wayne. Sarah was still at work and Cecilia was going for groceries. Neither one would be home for a while. He could kill me, he really could. Put my body in a bag and toss it in a dumpster behind some Hollywood club. I panicked and began clawing at the bathroom window. It was sealed shut.
"Let me in!" he shouted. "If you don't want it, who the hell is the dress for?"
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The yellow sundress. I opened the medicine cabinet. I couldn't kill Wayne, he was far too big. He'd kill me first. I'd rather kill myself than have him kill me. I'd never been my mother's daughter, but I would become so very quickly. I started rooting through the drawers for a knife, some heavy sleeping pills, anything. Could I hang myself from the shower curtain rod?
I came up with a pair of old rusty scissors and looked at them. They'd have to do. But wait -- I hadn't thought of smashing the mirror. I could take a piece of shattered glass and ram it in his face, his neck.
Then I noticed that Wayne had stopped pounding. Everything was quiet. But I didn't want to leave the bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror until I stopped breathing so heavily. I looked at myself, really looked. My hair was in my face so I brushed it aside. I hadn't looked at myself in a very long time, but now I thought I might be pretty. Almost pretty. I'd never entertained that notion before, but now I was horrified. I picked up the scissors again.
When Cecilia came home I let myself out of the bathroom and went to our room. She was in the kitchen starting to cook dinner. I took off my sundress and shoved it in the trash. I put on a pair of jeans and an old t-shirt. Air Supply, it said. That's what I needed. I took a few deep breaths and tried to stop shaking so hard.
The door opened quietly. "Reese, do you want a hamburger or peanut butter and jelly?" Cecilia asked. Then she looked at me. "Oh my God, what did you do to your hair?"
"I cut it."
She frowned, still standing in the doorway. "Why? I could have trimmed it if you'd asked. You know I'm so much better at that stuff than you. It looks terrible."
"Who gives a shit."
Her eyes looked up at me, wide and surprised. I suppose I'd never taken that tone with her before. "I'll even it up after dinner, how's that?"
I nodded quickly and turned away.
Sarah was home for dinner, but Wayne insisted on sitting close to me. He pulled his chair around so that our legs were touching. I tried to move away but he put his hand on the back of my chair.
"Your hair looks like shit," he whispered. "You do that for me?" His hand was on my leg and I was glad I'd changed into jeans. When he reached for my crotch, he only got a crease of denim.
I excused myself from the table to vomit. Later on that evening I sat on the floor in my room and allowed Cecilia to even up my hair. "With a curling iron," she said, "you could curl it under and make it look cute. Like a bob."
"That's okay," I said. "I don't care."
"You will." She gathered up my hair in an old newspaper and threw it in the trash. To me it looked like the remains of some dead animal.
That night as I tried to sleep on the floor, I heard a slight noise outside the bedroom door. I sat up and squinted to see in the dark. I kept the scissors under my pillow. They were rusty. If they didn't kill Wayne when I stabbed him, they would surely cause him to get lockjaw.
I saw his silhouette in the doorway and held my breath. Wayne was standing there. I smelled whiskey.
"Wayne," a voice said. Aunt Sarah. "Wayne, you come away from there. Don't touch those girls. You leave them alone."
The shape disappeared from the doorway. I lied back down but felt my blood pulsing around my limbs. A tear squeezed out of the corner of my eye. That was the only favor Sarah ever did for me. A week later she and Wayne packed their bags and left me and my sister without an explanation, taking their motorcycles and all the money in the house. People were after them. They'd crossed someone, I heard, someone connected to organized crime. It didn't surprise me, and I didn't care. I didn't expect anyone to stay anymore.
We tried to keep things together. For a little while we succeeded. Cecilia and I were used to taking care of ourselves, doing the laundry and getting ourselves to school. The first day they were gone, we went through the cupboards and pulled out all the food. A few cans of soup, beans, tuna. Stale bread, still edible but not great. Some crackers.
"That's it? We're going to starve," Cecilia said.
"No we aren't. We still have our free meal at school, remember?"
"We can't survive on one meal a day, even if it's a good one."
She was right. When I went to school, I took to pilfering a few extra cookies from the line, stuffing them in my book bag. Eventually I was shoving sandwiches into my pockets. Someone noticed and snitched on me. They took my food away and wrote me up, gave me a detention.
So I started stealing after school. I'd go into the grocery stores on the corner and shove things left and right into my book bag. For dinner Cecilia and I would put peanut butter on crackers, or eat tuna out of the can without mayonnaise. Bread was too difficult to steal, so we went without it. Even though this situation worked, I knew it would only last for the time being. Bills were piling up and although I understood them, I didn't have access to money to pay them. House bills, car bills, utility bills. How long before they showed up to take the car or turned off the electricity? Inside I shuddered. I was reliving Kansas.
One day the skinny dog jumped the fence and ran away (we had no food for him anymore; it was just as well). A neighbor brought him back, a kind elderly man we knew as Bumble. He lived down the street.
"She home?" he asked, meaning Sarah.
"She's on a trip right now," I said. "She'll be back next week."
Cecilia watched from the doorway, her mouth pulled into a frown. She looked like she might cry.
"She left you girls alone?"
"I'm thirteen," I grumbled. Bumble was nice but too nosy.
"I haven't seen that aunt of yours in a while. Ain't right of her to leave you girls for so long." He took out a handkerchief and wiped his face. The southern California sun was searing and bad for the skin.
After he left I put the skinny dog in the backyard and tried to ignore the sounds of his hungry yelping. I felt the same way, my stomach clenching like a fist. It shot pains throughout my abdomen.
Cecilia was crying in the kitchen. For supper we'd eaten peanut butter out of the jar. We had no crackers, I'd have to go stealing again.
"Stop whining," I said.
"We should go to the police, Reese. I'm tired of being hungry. The police could help us."
"No they couldn't," I replied. "They'll take us and put us in a home. You know what those places are like?"
She sat at the table and turned her wet face to look up at me. "What?"
"Horrible. Much worse than this."
She began to sob. "Nothing can be worse than this. This is awful. Reese, I'm starving. I can't even see straight anymore."
"In the Soviet Union --"
"Who cares about the Soviet Union!" Cecilia pounded her fist on the table. "Reese, I can count all my ribs." She pulled up her shirt. I could see her training bra, the one Mom had bought for her before Dad died. A full year later she didn't have anything under it.
"Okay," I said sadly. "We'll go to the police."
But it turned out we didn't have to. The next day people from the county showed up early in the morning. I figured Bumble must have called them. Cecilia and I packed our bags without much objection, taking our thrift store clothes and canvas shoes. I remembered to take my mother's rosary from underneath my pillow on the floor.
* * *
Neo and I are together in the mess hall, holding each other quietly, but we quickly separate when we hear shouting in the hallway. "You can go to hell!" Nala screams. "I hate working with you!"
We exchange glances. It's Tank and Nala, fighting again.
Tank bursts into the mess hall and quickly shuts the door. "Jesus H. Christ," he says, "that girl is crazy."
Tank doesn't care that he's interrupted us or that he's the third wheel around us. He pours himself a bowl of slop and sits down on the bench across from us. "So what are you doing?" he asks. "Other than making sick puppy dog faces at each other."
"Getting ready for that trip to the Matrix tomorrow," I tell him. "I'm not going, but Neo is."
Neo grins. "Guess I get to take Nala. Show her how to take a SWAT team. This mission shouldn't be a big deal."
"Don't get cocky," I say. "Any time you go into the Matrix it's a big deal."
"Especially for the agents," Tank says. "They don't quite know what to make of him yet."
That's not a surprise. Neo can fly, stop time, and instantly delete anyone who gets in his way. Now we're just trying to figure out how to take that to the next level -- meaning the beginning of the eradication of the Matrix.
"Just be careful," I tell Neo.
"Aw," coos Tank, "isn't that sweet. Like a mother hen." He smiles a little and swallows a spoonful of slop.
"I was talking more about Nala," I say. "She's still new at this."
"I'll look out for her," Neo replies quietly.
"If you ask me," Tank says, "that girl doesn't need anyone to look after her. Her stare could drop an agent at forty yards."
I get up to put my things away. "Tank, what were you fighting about?"
He shrugs. "She was mapping and she missed one of the codes. I told her and she flew off the handle. She's impossible to work with. I mean, most of you guys are cool about stuff like that. But Nala? You look at that girl sideways and she goes into a fit."
"Were you patient?" I ask. I know Tank -- he likes the fact that he knows more about the code than anyone else.
I leave the mess and go looking for Nala. She's in the bathroom, seething. At nineteen, she's a pretty girl but either angry or completely silent. But she and I understand each other. I understand angry women, women like Switch who could cut through your bullshit pretenses with one hard look. And I look at Nala and see what I could have been. Last year we found her in Zion, sleeping in doorways and living on cheap booze. She's Matrix-born, but her first crew was killed in a sentinel raid. She landed in Zion and they forgot about her, forgot to give her a new assignment. If circumstances were different I could have been Nala, drinking rotgut and giving hand-jobs for spare change.
"What's going on with Tank?" I ask.
Nala's standing in front of the mirror, running her hands through her straight brown hair. "Not much. Same as usual. He thinks he's the bomb, wants me to do stuff I don't want to do."
"We all have to do things we don't want to do."
"Whatever, Trinity. Most of us aren't getting laid. There's like, no incentive." She brushes her hair aside and studies her face. "Should I pluck my eyebrows?"
"What's the incentive?" I reply. "You're not getting laid."
Nala looks over at me and grins wryly. We know how to talk to each other. "Tank," she says, "is an asshole. I couldn't figure out how to map this one part of the construct. 'Oh,' he said to me, 'it's probably because they're still on Linux where you're from.' I don't need that shit. He can go stick himself for all I care."
I try not to laugh. It's like a flashback to my own early dealings with Tank, when I was the young upstart and he was the new external communications operator. "Just try your best to get along with him. He needs a new friend."
"Why? Because everyone else died?"
"Yeah," I say slowly. "He lost his brother."
"And don't I know it." She moves away from the small mirror. "He goes on about him all the time. His brother was the best, he knew everything, he was everybody's friend, never fought with anyone, blah blah blah."
I move in front of the sink to wash my hands. I can see why Tank and Nala really don't get along. "How were things on your old ship?"
Nala shrugs. "Okay. Not that exciting. God, don't ever tell anyone, but I really like this place better. I like everything but Tank."
"He can be trying, but he's really not so bad. He knows what he's doing. You know, he graduated from the Zion Academy of Technology and Training when he was seventeen. That's like graduating from West Point."
Nala turned away. "Big deal. Things like that don't impress me. If I'd stayed in the Matrix, I'd have gone to West Point."
"I'm sure you would have."
"Except that I was Canadian," she says.
I sigh and wipe my hands on a spare towel. "Nala, you're one for the historians to figure out."
Now she smiles. She doesn't smile too often. "That's what my mother used to say. Speaking of that, Trinity, when are you going to have a baby?"
I feel like my stomach’s just dropped out of me, I really do. I can feel the color drain from my face. "Who said anything about having a baby?"
"Oh, no one important," she says. "But really, when are you two going to get the show on the road and have a kid?"
"Nala," I whispered incredulously. "That's ridiculous. This ship, this war -- it's my life."
"But who said that meant your life had to stop for it?"
I shake my head and look away. Have a baby? My breath catches in my throat. I haven't thought about children with Neo -- the idea is simply preposterous. We can't raise children in the middle of a war. Neither one of us is convinced we have a future beyond the war. What would a baby imply for us?
"I want you to have a baby," Nala says thoughtfully. "Believe it or not, I actually like babies."
My mind is racing. I'm thinking about Neo, what he wants. What does he want? Have the others been talking about this? Has he said something to them? Dazed and smarting inside, I reach for the door.
"Trinity!" Nala exclaims. "I -- didn't know this was . . . I shouldn't have . . . I'm so sorry."
I force a smile. "It's nothing. Don't worry about it." I leave her in the bathroom and wander back to my quarters. My heart is beating in my ears.
Neo wakes me up in the middle of the night. "Trinity?" He's shaking my shoulder.
"Neo, what time is it?"
"It's late. Trinity, you were crying in your sleep."
I taste the salt at the corners of my mouth and Neo moves from the bed. He goes over and turns on the light. I squint. Sure enough, there are tears on my cheeks and on the pillow. I hastily try to wipe them away. Neo's staring at me, I figure my face is red and puffy. Not a great way to see your lover in the middle of the night.
"You're shaking." He crawls into the bed and pulls the blanket around my shoulders.
"I'm just cold."
He wraps his arms around me and runs his finger down my cheek. "What's wrong?"
"Bad dream, I guess."
"You were talking in your sleep. You said something about a baby."
I shake my head and try not to throw up. "I don't know."
"Must have been some dream. Do you remember anything about it?"
"No," I say quickly. "Nothing." That is a lie, of course, and it disturbs me more than the dream I just had. It's becoming too easy to lie to Neo. Things just slip out. I'm covering my tracks, hiding things from him. Is this how deceit begins? I wonder.
"Well, just try to relax. I'll hold you," he says, and he's so good and so kind I feel like crying all over again. I want to tell him everything. "Is everything okay?" he says. "You haven't been yourself lately."
"No. Usually you seem pretty happy."
I smile to myself. To him I seem happy. I always thought that happiness was some obscure goal, some feeling of being in love with the world. As I get older, I realize that happiness is simply not being afraid anymore.
But I am afraid. I fear losing him. I'm afraid of how it might go down, of watching my world end. Our private world crumbling to ash and dust.
"I want you to be careful tomorrow," I tell him.
He says okay, his arms curling around me. He tries to stay awake so he can comfort me, but I feel him drift off. I am awake, and now I'm the one watching him sleep.
* * *
In 1987 I was sixteen. To me the year was significant. 1987 -- not one of those numbers repeated themselves. Because I knew numbers, I realized this early on in the year. It was the last year of the century where no numbers in that four-digit sequence repeated themselves. Last year until 2013, to be exact.
I was living with the Stevensons then. I'd been with them for a year and of my three foster families, I liked them the best. Glen Stevenson was a construction worker who laid down sections of 101 in the warm spring weather. Diane Stevenson worked at a shipping dock when she wasn't home watching after their baby.
These people didn't ask too much of me. I could live there without talking about my life or my feelings. They didn't expect me to "make something" of myself. "Get a good job at a bank," Diane often told me. "A girl like you, good at numbers, you could go far at a bank."
Of course, I had no intention of going into banking. By then I'd already discovered computers. But that was the great thing about Glen and Diane -- they didn't give a shit. When I was thirteen I moved in with the Rappaports who wanted me to talk and cry and go through therapy. When I was fourteen I was placed with the Sheas and their four other foster children. Though the rest of the kids were troubled and prone to skipping school, the Sheas had heard things about my academic record. They thought I should try to succeed. They pushed me to get As. They cajoled me to try harder. "You're a genius," Mr. Shea told me. "You ought to be in college already, take tests to see if they’ll let you matriculate early. You think any of these other kids would shrug off the talent you take for granted?"
Yeah, I figured they would. Because if they had the talent in the first place, they would take it for granted just as I did.
Then there were the Stevensons, the blue collar folks from that south side suburb. At Glen and Diane's house, we ate hamburgers in front of the TV and had Kentucky Fried Chicken every weekend. Glen drank beer and watched sports, but he wasn't an alcoholic, unlike Aunt Sarah's boyfriend. He was just a normal, working class guy. These people didn't pry. They didn't care. All I had to do was stay out of trouble, get passing grades in school, and take care of the baby in the evenings. Piece of cake.
Well, almost. Like I said, there were computers.
I attended the large, unruly public high school nearby. By some stroke of wonderful luck, Cecilia's foster home was in the same district as mine. For several hours each day I was able to spend time with my sister. We ate lunch together and passed each other in the hallway. She was beautiful by then, attracting stares of older boys. Fifteen, with long legs and hair that hung down her back. She wore dresses to school. She told me she liked her foster family. They bought her clothes, and Cecilia was always eager to have new clothes.
In the afternoon I left the high school and went to the local community college. There they let me take extra math classes for free. I was long past high school math -- now into advanced Calculus and linear algebra. At the college I took my first computer class. The instructor strolled around in a wrinkled shirt and jeans. He ate lifesavers all the time. "The first thing you must know about computers," he told us on the first day, "is that computers are stupid. A computer will never be able to do half the things you could do when you were an infant. Always remember this. If there's one thing you take away from the computer class, it's that computers are dumb. They don't think, they operate. You can always tell a computer what to do and it won't object. It won't talk back."
So I worked hard and kept that in mind. Soon I made that computer my bitch. It was doing back flips for me. There was a purity about working with computers, some kind of purity I'd been looking for in math. No messiness, no emotions. No natural scientific nonsense about controls and variables and human mistakes. Only what I wanted.
But I still didn't think about a future. My future was blank, like the Kansas landscape after the harvest. Nothing there, nothing on the horizon. Just a wide space of unwritten emptiness.
One afternoon, on a brilliant day in the middle of March, I boarded the bus near the community college and road back to the high school. I usually didn't go back in the afternoon, but Cecilia told me to be there. "Moral support," she said. "After school I'm trying out for the play."
"What about your other friends?" I asked. Unlike me, Cecilia was popular. She was able feign normalcy, where I seemed to wear my scars openly. No one would have taken her for a foster kid if she hadn't said anything in the first place.
"I need you, Reese," she said. "My other friends will just tell me I'm great. You'll be honest with me so I can improve before next time."
I let myself into the high school theater and sat in the back row. I held an unlit cigarette between my fingers, itching for a good smoke. I was hopelessly addicted to nicotine by that time, sweat crawling at my hairline when I didn't have my cigarettes at regular intervals. My black clothes always smelled like cigarettes. Glen and Diane, of course, didn't care. They allowed me to smoke in the private room I called my own.
The directors sat near the
middle of the theater. "We have to recite a poem or a monologue from
memory," Cecilia had told me. "They want to see how much feeling you
can put into a piece you've already rehearsed. Cold readings are for
call-backs. I hope I get a call-back!"
I shrugged to myself. She was already a cheerleader, and now she wanted to star in the play as well. She was also the vice president of her class and the head of the environmental club.
"Cecilia Martindale," the director called. Cecilia smiled in the wings and stepped to the center of the stage. "What will you be performing for us this afternoon?"
Cecilia stood still and tucked her hands behind her back. "I'm going to do 'Daddy' by Sylvia Plath."
The three directors mumbled something, I craned my neck to see what was going on. The smiled dropped off Cecilia's face.
"Cecilia, are you sure you want to do that?" said the woman director.
"I'm sure," Cecilia asserted. Her face darkened for a moment. She stepped forward and began reciting the poem.
"You do not do, you do not
Anymore, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
"Daddy, I have had to kill
You died before I had time. . . ."
I felt something sear into my
brain, push behind my eyes. The maturity in Cecilia's voice, the raw anger. I
felt something burning in my blood. I felt faint, then realized that I'd been
holding my breath. I exhaled slowly, my limbs tingling. Daddy.
She and I never talked about it. Did she really hate our parents, after all?
"Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you."
I thought of my father in the field, on the tractor, the sun shining through his dirty blond hair, his skin dark from the sun. He was smiling at me and I was coming to help him. He'd let me ride on the tractor in his lap. In the dark theater, I dropped my cigarette and reached up to wipe a tear away from my mouth.
"There's a stake in your
fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through."
Cecilia finished and paused for a moment, then stepped back. The directors clapped politely. "Thank you, Cecilia Martindale," the fat one said. "Look for the call-backs on Thursday. They should be posted on the bulletin board outside the theater."
Cecilia smiled again and stepped down from the stage. At the back of the theater I was gripping myself, arms crossed over my chest, trying not to shudder. My sister grabbed her book bag and walked over to where I stood. "Wha'd you think?"
"Good," I said and looked away quickly. I didn't want Cecilia to see that I'd been crying.
"I thought so," she said, smiling broadly. "You can never go wrong with Sylvia Plath, Reese. You know how she died? Suicide. She put her head in the oven. Reminds me of someone nearer and dearer to our hearts." She smirked. Cecilia was no child. At certain moments, her cynicism consumed her entire personality. She may have been able to act like a normal girl in front of other kids, but around me her mood grew sneaky and dark. She was a cheerleader and an actress, but deep down inside these titles were peripheral, petty. More than anything, Cecilia was an orphan with no money, a girl who nearly starved when she was twelve.
We stepped into the hallway and Cecilia pulled some fliers out of her book bag. "Wanna help me put these up?"
I took a handful of fliers and some tape. Save the whales. Save the rainforest. Stop South African apartheids.
I had stopped blaming our mother for her suicide and our destitution. My mother had simply panicked, that was all. The money had run out, her husband was dead. As far as the IRS was concerned, we were all damaged goods. So she flipped out and killed herself. I understood that now. When Wayne was skulking around outside the bathroom, pounding on the door and swearing he'd have me, I understood my mother's sudden, sweeping despair.
And I had gone back to my old theory about bad luck. Bad luck had killed my parents, luck that seeped in the crack beneath the door and leaked from the kitchen faucet. Again, it was my fault.
"Are you coming this weekend?" Cecilia asked me when we were done. She sat on the stairs and pulled out a juice box and a textbook.
"Reese, don't you live in the world? To protest the building of that nuclear reactor, that's where. I've got half the school signed up."
I shrugged. "I'm not really up for it."
"What? You'd rather sit around that house with trailer park Joe and camel toe Cammy?"
"They're not that bad," I told her. "Compared to some of the other anal retentive freaks I've had to stay with, they're halfway nice." I tucked a piece of my short hair behind my ear. "Besides, I'm working on something."
"Ooh, that secret project of yours?" Cecilia sneered and opened her textbook. "If you ask me, Reese, you need to date. Get a boyfriend. Maybe you could hook up with someone at the protest."
I started digging through my pockets to find another cigarette to fiddle with. "To tell you the truth, Ceel, I don't give a damn about nuclear reactors, whales, or redwood trees. That's all your thing, and at times I wonder if it all isn't some act. I don't give a shit about boys either."
Cecilia shrugged and stared at her textbook. I could tell I'd upset her but I didn't care. After that awful poem, I didn't care about anything.
She took out her notebook and began her homework. I sat apart from her on the steps, allowing myself to zone out. Diane didn't have to work that night, which meant I wasn't responsible for looking after Susie. The baby was cute, nine months old, with curly brown hair and blue eyes. Luckily for all of us, she didn't cry very much.
"Reese, what's forty-six times twelve?"
"I'm not your personal calculator. Do the math yourself."
"'Do the math yourself'," she mimicked. She slid over to sit closer to me. "Guess what? I'm going to a Bon Jovi concert. Angie's dad is getting us free tickets."
"That's nice," I said, though I felt a surge of envy. At sixteen I'd never been to a concert.
"Jon Bon Jovi's hot. Maybe we'll even get backstage. Do you want me to see if I can get another ticket?"
I shrugged. "If you want."
"Or maybe two other tickets," she whispered to me. "Will you just look at that guy over there?" She nodded to a boy who stood near the lockers, staring at one of the posters we'd taped up. "Rob Lowe look-alike all the way. He's been checking you out, Reese."
"Has not," I said. I could feel myself reddening.
"At times like this, don't you wish you'd done something with your hair?" She reached over and smoothed the left side down. "It makes your head look too big for your body."
"Don't touch me," I said and tried to squirm away.
The boy was gradually coming toward us, though he showed no apparent interest. If he was on to anyone, it was my sister. I'd only be in the way.
Cecilia stood up, stretched, and
dropped one of her notebooks. Papers spilled everywhere. "Oh Reese, look
how clumsy I am!"
She bent forward and scrambled to pick up her papers. "Reese," she said loudly, "will you help me pick up my stuff?"
"You're on your own," I muttered and glanced down at my watch. I figured I'd head back to the bus stop.
The boy strode over to my sister. "Need help?"
"I'm so clumsy," she told him. "There isn't a thing I can do well. Right Reese?" She looked in my direction and gave a surreptitious wink.
"Reese?" the boy said. "Is that for Reeses Peanut Butter Cups?"
I rolled my eyes. "Funny," I said in a bored tone. "You should be on Johnny Carson."
"Her real name," my sister said, standing with her mess of papers, "is Maria Therese. She's my sister."
The boy narrowed his eyes and stared at me. "Maria Therese," he repeated, then smiled. "How Catholic. Are you a little Catholic girl, Maria Therese?"
I shot him an angry look.
Cecilia gave a forced, unnatural laugh. "Our mother was Catholic. She named us after saints. That's why my name's Cecilia Frances. Awful, isn't it?"
The boy raised his eyebrow. He was good looking but sly; his boyish features had a devious tinge. "Was Catholic? She's not Catholic anymore, you mean?"
"No --" Cecilia began.
"She's not alive anymore, she means," I blurted out.
"Oh," the boy replied, but he didn't seem surprised. "I'm sorry to hear that. How did she die?"
"Ovarian cancer," Cecilia said quickly. "Very sudden." I realized that for Cecilia acting wasn't a hobby but a natural instinct.
I picked up my book bag and started to leave. "I have a bus to catch."
"Reese, wait for me," Cecilia said and bent over to gather her things.
"You'll need a light," the boy said. He tossed me a lighter. The word 'truth' was engraved in gold letters on the side. His voice grew quiet. "I didn't expect you to be a smoker."
"Excuse me?" I stared angrily at him, but his intense gaze stifled mine.
He stepped forward. "Conformists smoke. Addicts smoke. Ladies with crack babies smoke. But I didn't think you'd be a slave to the tobacco companies."
Cecilia wasn't listening. She was off to the side, cramming her books and notebooks into her backpack.
The boy got close enough to take the lighter from my hand. "The answer to your question is yes."
"What question?" I muttered. My pretenses were gone. I was shapeless as air in this boy's hands.
"Yes, Maria Therese, there is such a thing as the Matrix."
I dropped my cigarette from my hand for the second time that day. He stooped over and picked it up. "You're on the right track," he said. "By the way, my name's Zach Jacobs, but you can call me the Prophet. Everyone else does. If you need anything, ask for me down in Hollywood. The Prophet." He handed the cigarette back to me, then passed me and headed for the doors.
He looked right at me and waved. "I'll be in touch."
Cecilia came up behind me. "You're whiter than usual these days. I keep telling you to get a tan. This is California, you ought to have a tan. So, did he as you out?"
I looked down at my cigarette and shook my head.
Outside Cecilia reached over and gave me a tentative, one-armed hug. That was rare. Neither one of us was very fond of sisterly displays of affection. "Thanks for coming today."
"It was no big deal," I said and shoved my hands in my pockets.
"You know, Reese, after everything that's happened, I'm just glad things are normal. I know I'm going to wake up tomorrow and it'll be okay, you know? After everything, I think we're going to lead normal lives after all."
I nodded and tried to smile, but inside I cringed. It was what I feared the most.
Six months previously, I spent an afternoon in West Hollywood. I cut my college classes to go down there, eat a sandwich, and watch the day slip by. But I found something else instead, a gathering in the middle of a side street. People were handing out fliers and I took one. "The Matrix has you," the paper read in large, block letters. "What is the Matrix?" it said in smaller letters, still all caps. "We're not sure what the Matrix is, but we know it's something that threatens us all. We're not supposed to know about it. We're not supposed to talk about it. Just thinking about you can land you in trouble. Scores of people disappear each year after they publicly question this thing called the Matrix."
Clueless, I stepped forward to see what the people were looking at. Some guy was shouting something. I read further down on the paper. "The Freedom Society has been hoping to find out exactly what the Matrix is. We only know that it controls many facets of our lives. We believe we can find the answers to our questions with the help of a man named Morpheus, and his partner, Gabriel Reyes. These two computer terrorists have managed to successfully hack several top-secret databases. They are fighting a war against the Matrix and all of us are a part of this war, whether we like it or not."
"It has us!" the man cried from the center of the small circle. "We're all in danger!" He was bald and aging, wearing no shirt so I could see how prominently his bones outlined his slim, pale form.
"Yeah brother, you said it!" someone shouted. Another guy laughed.
"They don't want us to know about the Matrix," the man continued. "The Matrix is the single most powerful thing on the planet. It exists everywhere. It makes us do things we don't want to do!"
Another man in the crowd stepped forward, a bored college kid with a goatee and a backpack. "I heard it's all a bunch of crap. The Matrix doesn't exist. That guy Gabriel Reyes is just trying to start a war against the government."
"You're wrong!" the old man cried. "I've seen the fields with my own eyes, seen the destruction of the earth! Oh God!"
I closed my eyes and thought of Kansas.
"Oh God is right," someone else muttered and walked away. A few others laughed and did the same.
"Morpheus and Gabriel Reyes are Libertarians," a thin girl said. She had short, spiky hair. "And I think they might be onto something. I heard they found out about how the government is keeping all sorts of records on us."
"Yeah, tax records," a woman said and a few people tittered.
"No, seriously," the girl said. "Surveillance. They know everything, watch everything we do. It's scary."
"The Matrix is a fancy word for the establishment," someone spoke.
"The Matrix is the world
beyond cyberspace," another man said.
"Yeah, and that means real life," a fat guy replied, yawning.
The old man started in again. "The Matrix will lead to our eventual destruction! We're slaves! We must free ourselves from these terrible shackles!"
Business men, obviously only there for entertainment purposes, laughed and walked away. The people who stayed were young people, probably college kids. They passed more fliers around. I heard thunder and looked up. That was odd; they sky had been clear before and now clouds were gathering.
The old man was talking quietly, almost whispering. I poked my head through the crowd so I could see him, and managed to finagle a spot in the front row.
He looked up and stared at me. Our eyes locked, and his were wild and furious and tinged with something that looked like guilt. I tried to look away but everything about me had gone numb.
"My God," he said. "I never thought I'd see you again." He began to walk towards me; I tried to shrink myself. "It's you, it's really you."
"Who?" someone whispered.
"Jesus Christ that walked on earth," the man whispered. "You've come back. You're here . . . You're the one who can save us all."
"I don't know what you're talking about," I muttered and tried to move away. The crowd blocked my passage and the man grabbed my arm. I looked at him and said, "You've mistaken me for someone else!"
"No, no! La Rosa Blanca, how could you forget yourself?"
"Leave her alone," someone said. "She's just a kid."
The man pulled me closer, his fingers pressing into my thin wrists. "You may look different, but your eyes are still the same. You know things. You've been here before!"
"You're hurting me!" I whispered and jerked my wrists away.
The man let go of me. "You can't ever forget destiny!"
Some of the students were laughing. I pushed through the crowd and took off running down the street.
"They're looking for you!" the man called after me. "You can't run from destiny!"
I rounded the corner and the sky opened. Police cars pulled up and a few overweight officers got out. I figured they were going to break up the crowd and kept running. I didn't stop until I reached the bus stop. The bus pulled up at the right time, but I was drenched. I sat down in the back seat and tried to stop shivering.
I turned the damp flier over to read the back. "You're a part of the Matrix and the Matrix is a part of you. Join us in the fight against this devious tool of oppression and surveillance. The key to unlocking the Matrix is in cyberspace. Join us. The Freedom Society."
That winter, low-iron blood made it hard for me to get out of bed in the morning, let alone ditch class and go exploring to find the Matrix. I buried myself in the library, digging through large, detailed computer manuals. After Christmas, I rose to meet the streets in our unimaginative suburb, thinking and planning. One day, I looked up to find myself in front of a garage sale. I sifted through the bins in the yard and the boxes of old shoes. Aunt Sarah would be proud that I hadn't lost my scavenging instincts.
But I didn't come for clothes or books or shoes. Instead, I was attracted to something on a shelf in the garage.
"That thing? It's not even for sale," the owner of the house said. Stomach rippling under his shirt, he looked up at the shelf. "I'm throwing it out. It's old. It doesn't work."
I licked my lips. We'd see about that.
He gave me the old CPU for twenty bucks. I hauled the huge, outdated thing back to the Stevensons under my arm, sneaking it upstairs to pry it open. There was something beautiful about the insides of a computer, like a dissected heart with all of its chambers intact. As I thought, it needed a shitload of new parts.
"Dear mother, keep me safe," I whispered during those afternoons when I ducked into tech stores. Rosary around my neck, I grabbed the crucifix and squeezed. That's about as close to praying as I got. I came home with stolen computer parts, but it was harder to pull off than I imagined. The computer really was hopelessly out of date. I used an old TV for a monitor, but I couldn't really get the computer to do much more than spit out senseless codes and make insulting noises. I was about to give up.
How could I get beyond cyberspace if I couldn't even get online? I dragged myself back to Hollywood to find the man and the people who had handed out those fliers, but there was no trace of any of them.
The day I met the Prophet, I came home with a throbbing headache and a strong desire to pick the computer apart and start again. But Diane had other plans for me.
"Here, take the baby," she said, handing the kid to me. "She needs a bath. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes, ma'am." I carried the baby down the hallway and tried not to sulk too much. This was supposed to be my night off, the night I could watch TV and do my homework without changing diapers and heating formula. But Diane didn't care about that. I was there, after all, and she and Glen were providing for me. It was really the least I could do.
Diane told me that Susie had been unexpected. After years of trying to have children, they gave up and decided to take in foster kids. The house was really too lonely with just the two of them, she said. But after they stopped trying? Bam. A kid of their own. "The most wonderful thing," Diane said. "Our little miracle."
Bah. I filled the tub with warm water I set the baby inside. She sat there in the shallow water and looked up at me with her large, bright blue eyes. "You always smell like babies," Ceel told me with distaste one day when we were eating lunch together. "Like baby wipes and formula."
I gently washed Susie's back and chest with soap and a washcloth. She splashed in the water and eventually got soap in my eye. "Damn," I whispered and got up to wash my eye in the sink. I watched the baby in the mirror. I wondered what would happen if I left her alone and she fell backwards into the water and drowned. God, Glen and Diane would kill me.
After I was done, I dressed her and placed her in the crib. She didn't cry but just looked at me. A good baby, I supposed, better than most.
In my room after dinner, I flipped on the computer and tried a few commands. Much to my surprise, it was working. Strange. A knock at the door. "Come in," I muttered.
Reggie, the other foster kid, quickly stepped in and shut the door. "My God, Glen and Diane are driving me crazy. Hey, you got that piece of crap working?"
Reggie moved over to take a better look at the screen. He was thirteen and had arrived at the Stevensons just three months before. "You know, you'd be better off getting a job and just buying your own computer."
"It would take years to get enough money for a decent piece of equipment," I told him.
He smirked. "Glen and Diane are suspicious of you. They think you're building a bomb."
"I don't care what they think. They let me have my own room. This is the first time since I was a kid that I had my own room."
"Do you wanna stay here?"
I stopped typing and sat back in my chair. "It's nice having my own room, but . . ."
"When I turn eighteen," I said, "I just want to move out and get on with my life."
"What will you do?" He went over and sat on my bed.
"I don't know. Get a job and my own apartment."
He was quiet for a second. Then he said: "I got half an ounce. You want to smoke a bit of it now?"
I turned around in my chair. "You don't mind sharing it?"
"Nah. It's no fun getting high by myself." He got up and left the room and came back a few seconds later. We opened my window and climbed out on the roof. It was clear and bright and cool. We passed the joint back and forth.
"What do you think Glen and Diane would do if they caught us doing this?" Reggie asked.
"Not much," I said, slowly exhaling. "Tell us to get down and go to bed. Man, what a sky. You can see Orion near the horizon."
I pointed out the constellation to him. "It has the three stars real close together, see? That's his belt. Those two bright stars there are his knees. He's kneeling, you know. Weird for a hunter."
Reggie laughed. Must have been the pot.
"And see that backward question mark, real faint? That's Leo."
"I only know the Big Dipper," he said.
"You can find Polaris by using the Big Dipper." I pointed at the sky. "Those two pointing stars lead you to that dimmer star over there. It's always in the north. If you get lost, you'll know how to find your way by looking at that star."
"Geez. You know a lot."
I shut my eyes. "Farmer's daughter. I spent a lot of time outside in the field."
"Oh." I waited for Reggie to ask what happened to my father, but he asked about aliens instead. "Do you think there are, like, other civilizations out there?"
I sighed, enjoying the light humming feeling in my head. "Probably. We haven't even scratched the surface of the universe yet. There are probably a lot of things out there." At that moment, I felt close to greatness.
"I figured that was what you were doing with your computer. Contacting different worlds, you know."
"Nah," I said. "I just want to use the computer to talk to people."
"How do you do that?"
"Hook it up to the phone lines. There's an old government project, something started by the military. If you have the right stuff, you can get on the computer and talk to other people around the world."
"Wow. And all this time I just wanted a Nintendo."
"Computers are great." I took another drag.
"Reese, I think you're great," Reggie said quietly.
Now it was my turn to laugh.
"No, really," he said. "Do you think we can . . . Is it against the law if we . . ." I could tell he was blushing in the dark. "I really like you."
Oh boy, I thought. "I'm an old woman," I said. "Sixteen. You'd be better with someone else. I have nothing going for me. Shit Reggie, I don't even have a driver's license."
"That's okay," he said quietly. "Maybe in a few years?"
"Mmm, yeah," I said quickly. I didn't want to dwell on the topic.
We clamored back into my bedroom and I sent Reggie on his way. I doubled back to turn off my computer, but stopped. There, on the screen, were white words. A sentence. Then two sentences. I gasped and almost called out for Reggie again, wanting to know what was up with that bud. Then I went closer.
It was great meeting you today, the message read. Morpheus and GR are looking forward to meeting you. I'll contact you again when the time is right. Guess who.
My mind seemed to instantly switch gears. But I hadn't even been online -- how was it possible? I looked behind my computer, and sure enough, the cord wasn't even plugged into the wall.
Days later I came home from school and took the baby to the park. Watching little kids on the swings, I was wishing two things: that I could be that age again, or that Susie could be that age so she wouldn't require as much maintenance. But it was a beautiful day and that was all I could hope for. I put on a pair of sunglasses and let the baby crawl in the grass.
I turned around to find the Prophet standing behind me. He pointed at Susie. She sat up and stared at him.
"What the --"
He walked around and sat next to me on the bench. "Little young to start a family, aren't you?"
"Shut up," I said and took out a cigarette. "You've been screwing with me."
"I wish." He smiled broadly. "I told you'd I'd be seeing you again."
"Oh, that was you on my computer?" I said, feigning boredom. Beneath my cool exterior, I was dying to know how he'd accomplished such a feat. But he'd been playing games with me, and I was pissed. "I thought it was just the residue from a bad acid trip."
"You do drugs?"
I exhaled a long breath of smoke. "Obviously."
He nodded and looked a little disappointed. "I supposed it's natural to want to escape this milieu."
"I suppose so."
He reached down and picked up the baby, then placed her in his lap. "She's difficult," he said to Susie, who reached out to touch his face. "A difficult woman."
I rolled my eyes. "What did you expect? You waltz into my life and drop cryptic little clues to the thing I've been trying to figure out for six months, and I'm supposed to give you a hero's welcome?"
He smiled. "I want you to want me. I'm begging you to beg me."
Ugh, the disgust. Behind my sunglasses, I was devising a plan to scar him in some permanent way. "What do you want? A blow job? A quickie in the bushes over there? Is that what you're hoping for?"
The smirk dropped off his face. "Jesus," he whispered. He put his hands over Susie's ears. "Don't say that in front of the kid. Babies remember things."
"Don't act like some prude. Don't pretend like that's not why you came here."
"But it's not why I came here," he said. Now he was serious. "They said you'd had a rough time. Damn. This is just my first job as a recruitment officer, I don't know anything. It's not like they give us sensitivity training where I'm from. No team building, no puzzle solving, no building houses out of furniture."
I tossed my cigarette onto the grass and smashed it under my foot. "You know, you're not the only one who can do shit on the computer. I'm onto you. Zach Jacobs. Either that's not your real name or you're not a student at the high school."
"You hacked the school's mainframe?"
I sat back and was silent.
"Listen, Maria Therese, this is what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna come to your house and ask you out on a date. For real. Then I'll take you to a club in Hollywood. And then you'll get to meet some new people."
"Fat chance you'll get me to go along," I said. Now I had the faint impression that Zach Jacobs, or whoever he was, only knew how to press my buttons. He didn't know anything about the Matrix. He just wanted to get laid.
He gasped and put his fist against his chest. "So young, and so untender."
"Damn straight." I took Susie out of his lap, set her back on the ground, and began gathering my things.
"Whether you like it or not, you've already started down the yellow brick road. You aren't in Kansas anymore. It's only a matter of time."
"Get lost," I said.
"Maria Therese Martindale. Doesn't that name feel odd to you? Like it isn't your own?"
"A lot of things feel odd about this life. I'm getting over it."
"For instance," he continued, "don't you find it odd that your dad was charged with tax fraud? You knew the man. You saw his records, comprehended them more than any other child could. And you know he never stole a penny in his life. I'll tell you this: the whole entire thing was a set up."
My mouth went dry. "How do you . . . ? You -- you've been looking at tax files! You must have hacked the IRS! How dare you use this against me?" I lifted my fist to punch him.
He grabbed both of my arms. "Listen. I've done nothing of the sort. It's just what I've been told. No one hacks the IRS and lives to tell about it!"
"Then how did you know?!" I shouted. Susie began to cry.
"I know a lot about you!" he said, now clearly flustered. "I've been watching you."
"Watching me?!" I tried to break free of him but his fingers were latched around my wrists. "You're sick! I'll have you arrested!"
"Listen, Maria Therese. The Matrix has you. It's had you all along, since the day you were born, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Finally I broke free of him. I was crying by then and deeply startled by my emotions. "I'll have you lynched."
"You can't do that," he said with a dark chuckle. "You need me. I'm your last hope, your lifeline out of this place. Your Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad."
"Shut up," I gasped, shivering.
"Morpheus and Gabriel Reyes will meet you. They always get their way."
"What does the Matrix have to do with my father?" I asked. I reached over and picked up the baby again. Now I had to rock her back and forth to calm her.
"Everything and nothing. It's hard to tell how deep it really goes. Your father's farm was worth more in the hands of big business. Records were fabricated. Other records were thrown away. Is that directly linked to the Matrix? I don't know, but somewhere, somehow, everything is inextricably linked to the Matrix."
I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. "Where is the Matrix?"
Now he smiled again, more broadly than before. "Where is God, little Catholic girl?"
I wasn't Catholic. "God is dead."
"Poor faithless thing. God is everywhere. And so is the Matrix. But thankfully, while it’s impossible to escape God, it is possible to travel beyond the boundaries of the Matrix. And that's what I'm going to help you do. You want that, right?"
I hugged the child fiercely and nodded.
"I'll come for you then. We'll go out on a date like I said before. Don't worry, it won't be too dreadful." He turned to walk away.
"Are you going to kill me?"
He laughed to himself. "Let's hope not. You're very special. She said so, you know. Very, very special."
"Who?" I asked, but he strolled away whistling and didn't bother to answer my question.
* * *
"I'm cutting you off about now," Neo says to Nala. He takes the jug of moonshine vodka and puts it beneath the center counsel. "You've had way too much to drink."
Nala just laughs and hurries to finish the last of her drink. "I'm just celebrating our success. Four agents erased, along with part of Canada. Yeah!" She picks up my cup and swallows the shot down in one gulp.
In a complete change of plans, Neo had managed to do something we didn't think possible. He deleted a desolate, unpopulated section of Canada. Small, but significant for us nonetheless. It shows that he can routinely erase parts of the Matrix if he chooses. Of course, the hard part is freeing the people in the Matrix without erasing them as well. Now we have to see how soon the machines can restore the lost slice of the world.
"You did good," I tell Nala. I take my cup away from her.
Neo leans over and whispers to me that he's going to put Nala to bed to let her sleep it off. "You should have been there today," he tells me, and I wonder why I was not.
Morpheus is in the cockpit. Link is shuffling around the corridors. Neo leads Nala from the core and I sit down with Tank.
"She's fast," Tank admits. "Like you."
I smile. "More like Switch."
"Yeah," Tank says. He punches a few commands into the keyboard. I notice that he's been playing solitaire.
"I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back in," I admit.
"Of course you will.”
Several disturbing instances in the Matrix have made it difficult to let myself be strapped to the chair and latched into the Matrix. First we lost Mouse, Switch and Apoc, which was tragic, but not an insurmountable misfortune. But one day I went in with Neo and got trapped in a car seconds before the thing exploded. I managed to get myself out of it, but sustained multiple RSI injuries that lasted weeks. My left leg is still weak, both in and out of the training sims. I feel as though I've lost my mojo, my combative touch. "You'll go back in again," Morpheus said when I could walk again. "There's no keeping you from the Matrix. It's not your job, it's your calling."
I'm not sure about this. I worry that my presence might cloud Neo's judgment. Last time he was distressed about not getting to me in time. So what happens next?
Tank sits back in his chair. "I remember the day I met you. I was seventeen. Morpheus brought us into the mess hall for a briefing."
I nod. "You had just joined the crew because Morpheus had become captain of his own ship. You sat across the table from me and kept kicking me in the shins. You were staring at me."
Tank laughs. "I knew you were the best. I could tell by the way everyone treated you. You might have been the youngest, but man, they let you sit right next to Morpheus."
"You were awful," I say with a grin. "When we got done, you said, 'You stink. Don't they teach you Matrix people how to bathe?' I was horrified."
Tank laughs harder. "I know. But you did stink."
"I'd been cleaning the engine, I remember."
Tank takes out the jug again and pours himself a drink. "I don't know. The ship still seems empty, doesn't it? It's been nine months, but I can't get past how quiet this place is."
"Yeah," I whisper. I feel my vision slide out of focus. If I try hard enough, I can almost see blurry images of people sitting in the empty chairs. I struggle to keep my vision out of focus. "Maybe it was always this quiet."
Tank sighs. "Trinity, it's okay to miss people every now and then."
I bring my eyes back into focus so there's just one of him. "Miss one person and you miss them all."
"Are you okay?"
"No. I feel useless," I confess to him. I know he won't tell anybody, not Morpheus or Neo or anyone else.
"No," he says, studying me. "I'll tell you what you feel. You feel powerless."
"It's my job to keep people alive. I couldn't do it. It's like being the best swimmer but not able to keep others from drowning. Stretching my hands across the water, and I couldn't hold on."
Tank peers closer at me and I look away. "If you keep thinking that way, it'll eat you alive."
"I know," I say.
"Sometimes you have to let go and let others drown because that's the way it's meant to be."
I nod, though I don't really agree with that. These explanations bother me. Sure, they sound comforting, but they're too standard, too convenient. I need something to both harness and soothe my insides. There's a wolf who roams inside me, and sometimes he lunges.
"You'll go back," Tank says. "You're the strong one, remember? You can't stay away."
* * *
"Want my advice, Maria Therese?" the Prophet said. "Lose that name of yours."
I turned to look at him. We were inching along the freeway in heavy traffic. "What's wrong with my name?"
"It simply does not suit you. It's the name the Matrix gave you."
"My parents gave me my name. I don't care if you don't like it."
He snickered and changed lanes. "You should pick the name of a great sinner. Hackers are terrorists -- we don't have saints' names. Hmm," he said and scratched his chin. "Cardinal Wolsey. Oliver Cromwell. You'd make a good Cromwell, you know? Or an interesting Atilla."
I rolled my eyes.
"Names from literature and mythology work well. Persephone. Hera. Cordelia. Come, let's away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds in a cage." He turned to smile at me.
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
He'd come to my house that afternoon and asked Glen and Diane if he could take me out. Impressed by his car and wardrobe, the Stevensons agreed immediately to let me disregard my chores and go out. It didn't take much to impress them.
I went only because the Prophet had information that I wanted.
We pulled up in front of a Denny's and he got out. "What are we doing here?" I asked.
"I'm not hungry."
"You will be," he said. "Plus, I have to get you prepped to see Morpheus and Gabriel Reyes. I have to warn you that these next few days will be the hardest for you. This is a transitionary period -- you'll be living in one world but being prepared to jump to another. Don't be afraid. I'll be with you the entire time." He grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I hastily pulled it away.
"I don't like to be touched."
Inside the restaurant, the Prophet ate a huge dinner and gobbled down most of mine as well. He acted like he hadn't eaten in a few weeks.
"Do you always eat like this?"
"Most of the time I don't eat at all," he told me. "This is just indulgence. In this world, you could go hungry all of the time and not starve one bit. Too bad you didn't know that a few years ago." He raised his eyebrows at me.
"That's not funny," I said, still disturbed by how much he knew about my life. "We went hungry all of the time. It was painful."
"You went hungry because you thought you weren't eating. In fact you were. But the mind is a strange thing, easily swayed by suggestion. You depended on what you could touch and taste as food, and therefore, when you lacked it, you thought you were starving. Conversely, the person who constantly gorges himself perceives himself as obese when he really isn't eating any more or less than the next person."
"Like you?" I pointed to the food.
"No, I've mastered the art of separating mental actions from physical ones."
Confused and feeling like my head would explode, I set my elbows on the table and began massaging my temples. "How does one go about hacking the IRS?"
"Keep your voice down!"
"Why? There's no one here."
"They may be listening, you can't tell." He inched closer to me and lowered his voice. "You've hacked other things. Your school. City police records. But the IRS? That's big. The only advice I can give you is this: be pragmatic. Then get ready to get the hell out. They'll find you."
"Where will I go?"
"I'll take care of that," he said, pulling away and going back to his meal. "Be careful about certain people. Don't ever let a man in a black suit and sunglasses approach you, even if you suspect he may be harmless."
"Wow, that narrows the field," I said. "Should I avoid teenagers in jeans as well?"
"If it makes you feel better."
I thought of Cecilia. I didn't know anything about my destination, but I had a feeling that she'd be left behind.
Outside of the restaurant, the Prophet opened his trunk. "Don't be frightened," he said.
"Why, are you going to put me in there?"
He held up a syringe. "I have to get a sample."
I started to inch away. "You're going to take my blood? What for?"
"Standard release procedure. Just have to make sure that you've never been tinkered with before." He approached me and took my arm and rolled up my sleeve. "Your blood is a powerful thing, you know. Walk a bleeding virgin over a field and the crops will grow."
I sneered in disgust. "Shut up. I'm about through with this."
He tilted my arms towards him. "That's what you think. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave, remember? Now, be a good martyr and smile for the sword."
"Jesus, I could catch something."
He snickered and plunged the needle into my arm, ignoring me when I cringed. "Hopefully I won't have to fetch fire to thaw thy blood."
He didn't even give me a band-aid. I stood there with my finger over the puncture in my arm. "I hope you're happy."
He reached over, took my head in his hands and kissed me on the lips. Shocked and horrified, I stood there until he finished. "Thank you," he whispered when he pulled away. "I feel much better now."
But I didn't. "I knew it."
"I knew it too. You're it. The One." He smiled, redness rising to his cheeks, and went around to unlock the car door.
I crossed my hands in front of my chest and scowled. "What 'One' are you talking about?"
In the car, he said, "I can't take you to meet Morpheus and Gabriel Reyes now. Just as I suspected, you're not quite ready. But you will be soon. I'm going to take you home."
I brushed my hair out of my face. I didn't appreciate getting mauled by a cocky head-case in a Denny's parking lot. I'd figured this much about Zach Jacobs -- he was like all other scumbag guys, and his knowledge of my private life frightened me.
When we pulled up at the house, he grabbed my hand. "Do what you have to do, Maria Therese. The IRS. It's hard but not impossible. I'll come for you again."
Before I could tell him not to bother, he threw his car in reverse and shot out of the driveway.
"He didn't even walk you to the door?" someone called out. I turned to see Diane behind me, standing at the threshold. "Young men these days ain't got much respect."
For the Prophet, respect was too much to hope for. I just wished he'd come off his distant planet and start making sense.
I thought of Kansas, its plain mysticism, the way the sky bled colors of rose and orange at the end of a summer day. I remembered my father as he rode his tractor along the horizon. He hadn't stolen anything, and here I was, a liar and a thief. I cried in bed, hugging my knees to my chest.
I knew that the Prophet had done something to my computer to make it work since it had never given so much of a sputter before. Now I cut my college classes and came home early, eager to begin another day of searching. Sometimes I even faked sick so I could remain at home. Morpheus, I learned, was a figure to be both courted and reckoned with over the internet. Gabriel Reyes was equally dangerous -- a man with thirty-two acts of terrorism to his credit and the ability to disappear from crime scenes and reappear within minutes in another city.
And slowly I began to hack the IRS.
The Prophet would send me messages: You might never find out the truth about your father. That's okay. You can't do everything.
I stopped blaming luck and started blaming people for my misfortunes. People made up institutions, and institutions lied and buried the truth in thick computer databases.
One night I fell asleep at my computer and was awakened by someone throwing objects at my window. I rushed over and opened it to find the Prophet outside. "C'mon," he said. "We've got places to go and people to see. Oh, and congratulations about getting into the database, Trinity. That's your name now, right? Trinity?"
"Quiet," I said. "You'll wake up the whole neighborhood."
"Come down here and we'll continue."
I looked behind me to make sure I'd closed the door to my room. "I can't leave."
"Sure you can. I've seen you climb out here and sit on the roof a dozen times."
Something in my mind gave a funny twinge. He always knew what I was doing. "No," I explained, "I'm already in trouble because they found out I've been ditching school."
The Prophet shrugged. "Don't you understand that it doesn't matter?" He stepped closer to the house and lowered his voice. "You're leaving. To them, you'll vanish without a trace. No one will know where to find you and they'll probably assume that you died."
My mind froze. Cecilia. I wouldn't have minded all that if it weren't for her. What would she do if she thought I died? Shrug and go to cheerleader practice? No, she'd get angrier. Maybe she'd drop out of school or run away. But most likely, she'd hide her anger and frustration, as she always did, until it practically congealed in her veins.
"You're coming, right?"
I opened my window wider. "Are you going to kill me?"
"No," he said quickly, as if he'd been asked that question before. "I love you. I would never kill you, or allow anyone else to hurt you. But indeed, you will begin a new life."
I stepped out on the roof, scampered to the edge, and grabbed hold of a tree. I swung off the roof and dangled for a few seconds before I managed to get my feet to another branch. Then I climbed down a few branches until it was safe to jump to the ground.
"How did you come up with the name Trinity?" he asked, guiding me to the street.
I shrugged. "Who cares? I just came up with it."
"Oddly religious, isn't it? But it suits you much more than your previous name." He put his arm over my shoulder.
"Why do you say you love me?" I asked.
In the dark, his face seemed shocked and blank. "Because I do. I've loved you since the day we met. Love is all we have, you know. It sets us apart from machines."
"I prefer machines. They're rational and predictable. They don't mix instinct with principle and come up with betrayal and unhappiness. If everyone acted like a machine, there'd be no war or chaos or starvation."
He laughed and tightened his arm around me. "Don't say that in other company, okay? If everyone loved the way I do, there'd be no war or chaos either."
He led me back to the car and opened the passenger side door, though I said I could do it myself. "What did you find in the IRS?"
"Nothing," I said. "Nothing that I really cared about."
"Don't get stuck caring about these things, this concept of revenge," he told me. "Trinity, where you're going, there's no revenge -- just survival. And you can never come back. I want you to know that now. Nothing in this world will matter to you anymore, but you'll know the truth about the Matrix, and you'll be free. But your life will be completely different, as dramatic as the difference between winter and summer or poverty and wealth. Do you understand?"
I nodded. I was numb.
We road through the city and the Prophet hummed to himself. I stared out the window and watched the lights flashing. "What's the One?"
"The One is what we've been looking for. I've found it in you."
I turned to look at him. "I still don't understand."
"It was prophesied that someone would come for us, come to free us from this chain of slavery. That's you. You're special. She told me that you were special. And I love you."
I tried not to cringe. "Who told you? And what does your loving me have to do with it?"
"An oracle told me. It was prophesied that the One would only be accessible to the world through the love of someone else. I'm that someone else."
I felt bad that I didn't love him, but I figured he was crazy anyway with his talk of oracles and prophesies. I had the feeling that I was being led down a shit road, but I didn't have the power to stop myself. One way or another, I'd end up in the same place. I'd been three different people -- the girl in Kansas, the sullen orphan in Los Angeles, and now this hacker, this Trinity. Three different lives, three different people locked away inside me. But when did each of those lives begin? Or end? They all seemed to run together, like the colors of a modern painting.
"One thing you must remember," the Prophet said, "is that you have to mind yourself when you're with Gabriel Reyes. With him, you must either be very hot or very cold. If you're lukewarm, he will spit you out of his mouth."
We reached our destination: a club in Hollywood. The Prophet led me past the bouncers -- they seemed not to see him -- and into the dark unruly club. "How old are you?" I asked.
"Three, but in Matrix years I'm nineteen."
The Prophet went over to the bar and I scuttled into a corner where a thin girl with stringy hair tore off a square of acid and handed it to me. I placed it on my tongue then went to join the Prophet at the bar. "You want a drink?" he asked. I shook my head.
"Gabriel Reyes and Morpheus will be along shortly," he said. I was more interested in Morpheus. According to the people on the internet, he was the poet, the philosopher of the movement. Gabriel Reyes just wanted to blow up the goddamn world. Morpheus could teach me things, be straight with me, unlike the Prophet.
"The Matrix," I said to myself and giggled. Now I was high. The people on the dance floor looked like butterflies flapping their wings. They had golden, flaking skin. When I looked up, I could see straight through the ceiling and find Orion slipping through the sky. I looked at the Prophet. Strangely, he looked normal, but even more beautiful than I remembered him. "Okay," I said and reached over to pull his face against mine. His lips surged with waves of heat. He wasn't lukewarm. I felt his hand against my right breast. "That's enough," I said and pulled away.
"You okay?" he whispered.
I licked my lips and watched people leave trails of colorful motion.
I don't know when Gabriel Reyes showed up. It felt like hours. He sat next to us at the bar. "Morpheus can't come," he said. "I'm stuck with this one by myself. So who is this girl?"
"She got into the IRS," the Prophet explained.
"Really." Gabriel Reyes ordered a drink. I was on the other side of the Prophet. I leaned against the bar and faced the dance floor where people were whirling around like hoodlums.
Apparently Gabriel Reyes had been trying to talk to me, but I'd been too entranced with the effect of my acid trip to really noticed. I glanced up to find them looking at me. "Jesus Christ," Reyes said. "She's high as a hovercraft."
"What?" The Prophet jumped off his chair and waved his fingers in front of my face.
"You know damn well we can't unplug anyone in this state!" Reyes got up and grabbed his bag. "You brought me here to waste my time."
"No," the Prophet said. His philosophical pretensions had vanished. "She's special. I know she is!"
"She's like every other kid in this goddamn place. Half dead already. If we take her, she'll be dead within a few months."
"Morpheus wants her!" the Prophet protested. "Trust me! We need her!"
"Morpheus isn’t the captain, I am. Maybe some other time," Reyes said, his lips curling in disgust. He pushed past the other people at the bar and made his way to the door.
The next day I found myself sitting in a car outside of the Stevenson's house. The Prophet's car. I looked over to the driver's side, but he was gone. Mashing down my hair, I sat up and pulled myself out of the car. Everything was back to normal -- they sky and the trees had their usual hue. But it was already hot, a fierce, liquid heat that made me feel like I was living in slow motion.
Then I looked at the porch. Glen and Diane were there, watching me make my way across the lawn. I could tell they were pissed.
My social worker took me to school that morning. The Stevensons had contacted her when I didn't come home. "Out half the night. Doing drugs, drinking, and with other children in the house!" She took a drag on her cigarette, then tossed the butt out the window. "Don't you know a good thing when you see one? The Stevensons are decent people. Good middle-class people. And you. Running around like a hooker. They'll toss you out, and you'll spend the rest of your two years in detention."
I felt awful. Not because of the Stevensons, but because of Gabriel Reyes. Maybe some other time, he said. Some other time? What did that mean? I couldn't hold on much longer.
At school I sat at my desk with my head down, desperately trying not to cry. It was a hot day in April. By noon sweat had already soaked through my shirt, and I wiped a combination of sweat and tears out of my eyes. When the bell rang, I barely heard it. Finally I dragged myself to my feet.
I passed by the window and something caught my eye. The Prophet. He was standing on the baseball field, and he mouthed a word to me. Soon, he said before turning and running away. Soon.
* * *
Resurrect yourself from the dead and what are you left with? A few years, perhaps. Fate doesn't like to be told she's surmountable. How much time before death catches up with you?
Well, now I've really done it. I'm in the bathroom and I'm standing before the mirror. Trying not to cry, but the tears keep coming anyway. I'm late, a few days, perhaps weeks. Time doesn't have much meaning any more. I'm pregnant, so any hopes I had of going back into the Matrix anytime soon are gone. This is something I can't have, not because I don't want it, but because it's simply not right.
But it's going to happen anyway. I let my hand wander over my abdomen and I can feel the sobs at the back of my throat, the mixed sadness of loving something fiercely and fearing the consequences of its existence at the same time. But the door swings open suddenly. You can never be sure of your privacy in this place, it's like a dormitory. I snatch my hand away and bring it to my eyes to wipe the tears from my face.
Nala sees me and stops in her tracks. "Sorry, I didn't know you were in here . . . are you okay?"
"Fine," I say quickly.
"What is it?" She comes closer to me.
"I can't say . . ."
And she comes over to me and throws her arms around me anyway. That's nice. She's not in it for the details. She's such a small girl, but she's so strong. I remember a time, after the death of an especially beloved crewmate, when Switch came to me. "I could die from this," I told her. "This could kill me." "You won't die," Switch said. "I won't allow it."
To me, the resistance means resisting death. When I think back on my life on this ship, I think of someone's arms around me, keeping me from drowning.
Tonight I turn in early, go back to the quarters I share with Neo and fall asleep in the bed. I don't wake up until I hear the wheel turn. I hear him step inside.
"Trinity? I've been looking all over for you. You alright?"
"Just tired," I tell him. That's the truth. I rub my eyes and sit up. "What were you and Morpheus talking about?"
He leans against the beam and begins to unlace his boot. "The message from the agent."
I swallow. "What about it?"
"Well, the agent wants to talk to us. More specifically, he wants to talk to me alone. He wants to meet me two days from now. He says he wants to deal with us in return for his protection."
"He must be crazy," I say. "We can't offer him anything. We're going to destroy the Matrix, and that means the machines as well."
Neo looks up. "I'm not thinking of the long-term consequences of a partnership with an agent."
"So you're going to do it?"
I feel like my stomach's just been given a fierce squeeze. "Neo, haven't you thought this through? The whole thing is a set-up! You could get there and forty agents could appear. You might be the One, but you can't handle an entire army of machines."
"Tank says he'll make sure it doesn't happen."
"Neo, I don't care." I begin to cry. "This is too dangerous."
"Hey." He comes over and sits down on the bed. "This is a step forward for the resistance. A necessary step forward. We need their information in order to start making a big difference in this war."
"You won't know their intentions until it's too late," I say. "Maybe they're just trying to get information out of you. You can't trust a machine, Neo."
"You don't look well." He reaches over to brush the hair out of my face.
"Don't change the subject."
He sighs and gets up from the bed. "I don't know what you want me to do. I was hoping you could come into the Matrix with me to pull this off. I need you."
Shit. Given the latest turn of events, that's not going to happen. "I can't do that."
"Trinity." He kneels in front of me and grabs both of my hands. I imagine the floor must hurt his knees. "You have got to get over this. You fear them too much. I'm here to push you, to get you back into the Matrix again."
I hate myself for not being able to tell him. The fact that I'm not happy about a baby would only disappoint and confuse him. I have to prepare myself more. I have to figure out what I'm feeling, and that's a formidable task. One way or another, I'll accept this child.
But Neo wants an immediate answer. "I won't go into the Matrix with you," I tell him. "I don't believe in what you're doing."
He nods and looks away, gets up and heads for the door. "I'm going to talk to Morpheus. I'll be back later, okay?"
I nod. To him I must seem like an emotional wreck, and that's the most embarrassing thing of all. Perhaps I am an emotional wreck -- it doesn't seem to matter anymore.
The door closes softly behind him, and only then do I let myself cry into the worn sheets and pillows below.
* * *
Glen and Diane watched me carefully after I'd taken my leave of absence. It seemed like they expected me to whip out a crack pipe in the living room or start running a prostitution ring out of the basement. I stayed in my room for the next few days and into the weekend. I lived within the confines of my computer. One way or another, I would find Morpheus and convince him to take me away from this.
But just when things felt right, Cecilia came over. Glen and Diane let her come up to my room. For a few minutes she talked incessantly about the highlights of her life, about acting in the play and getting picked to be a varsity cheerleader. Then she said: "I heard you're in trouble."
I ignored her and kept tinkering with the modem.
"That's not all," she continued. "I heard the teachers talking about you."
I looked up. "What?"
She flounced down on the bed. "I overheard Mr. Sapirstein talking to Mrs. Costello in the hallway. He said it was a waste."
They were math teachers. They helped me get into the college classes I wanted. "What's a waste?"
"You. For God's sake, Reese, you're not even going to college. You're not even trying! You blew off the PSAT and then the SAT. You're ruining your life."
I set the modem down. "Who cares? It's my life! So what if I don't want to go to college and live in a dorm and play dumb intramural sports. I just want to be left alone. What's it to you if I ruin my life?"
She was silent for a few moments. "Nothing, I guess. I just thought . . . I figured you'd be successful. You're like a genius or something. If Dad had lived he would have made you go to college. You'd probably have gone to Harvard or something."
"Yeah, well Dad's dead," I replied curtly. "We can't play 'what if?' with my life. It's nothing for you to be concerned about. You can go on to college if you want. I'm not stopping you." I went back to picking at the modem.
It was quiet for a few minutes, but eventually she started speaking again. "You've changed. Just in the last few months. You get a computer and a boyfriend and suddenly you don't care about me or anything else. You're practically a criminal."
"You're right," I said, "and I don't care."
Behind me, I could hear her take a deep breath. "Reese, I'm probably getting adopted. I just wanted you to know that. The Baileys want to adopt me."
I felt a funny sensation inside of me, like I was on an elevator that was falling too fast. "Congratulations."
"Reese, you know you can turn this around. You can get adopted too if you try hard enough."
I shook my head. "It's not a about trying hard. It's about luck, about being at the right place at the right time. Believe me, I know. But I don't want to be adopted. I'm leaving soon."
And I had said too much.
"What?" Cecilia said. She looked up at me. "Where are you going?"
"I don't know," I said, now wanting to back out of what I'd told her. I turned to her. "Just know that I'm okay. Wherever I am, I'm fine."
She got up from the bed. "Oh my God! You're running away?"
"No," I said. I got up to keep her from flipping out. "I'm just leaving."
"How could you do this to me?" She angrily wiped tears out her eyes and grabbed her purse. "I've already lost my parents, now you're running away too?"
I got up. "Jesus, Cecilia, I didn't mean . . ."
"It's because of that boy, isn't it. That Zach Jacobs you told me about. I always see you with him. He's the reason you're doing this."
"Fine," she said, making her way to the door. "You know our parents loved you the best. Dad especially. You did everything right in his eyes, Reese. Well, I wonder what he would say if he could see you now, forgetting everything he taught you. You're not the sister I grew up with. You're a disgrace."
She took a deep breath and continued. "You go away and forget about me, Reese. And I'll forget about you too. And we'll pretend we were never sisters." She left the room and seconds later I heard the front door open and shut. I stood in the doorway of my room.
Reggie poked his head out from around the corner. "I thought she'd stay for dinner."
I shook my head and quietly closed the bedroom door. In a daze, I stared at my computer. I was going to ruin my life, but I didn't care. Without really knowing what I was doing, I was hacking into the IRS again. "I'll do right by you, Dad, and only you and I will know it." My revenge. This time I went deeper into the system, numbers stretching to meet me in every direction. Numbers that stretched forever, like fields of corn. And after I wiped out hundreds of records, I turned off the computer and went to sleep.
I hadn't thought of the possibility that the missing files from the Kansas City database would be reason for national concern. I went to school in the morning and the breach of security had made the front page of The Los Angeles Times. Apparently no one had ever done such a thing before. I would have liked to feel some pride over it, but by that time I was long past gloating. Now I was scared.
At school I skulked around the hallways. By second period I was a nervous wreck. And when I heard them page me over the loud speaker, I freaked. I grabbed my things and headed for the nearest exit. I spent the rest of the day hiding, riding the bus in and out of the city and reading the newspapers.
Late in the afternoon I decided to chance going back to Glen and Diane's house. No one was there. I went upstairs to my room to check on everything. My heart stopped when I noticed that my computer was missing. They'd been there. I heard the door open downstairs.
"Reese? Are you home?"
It was Diane. I gathered myself and went downstairs.
"Was someone here today?" I asked her as she stood in the doorway.
"No. Why? I was out all day." She held the baby on one hip.
"No reason," I said and forced a smile. "I'll take the baby."
"Good," Diane replied and handed her to me. "It's your day to watch her. I have to go to work. Glen won't be home until late this evening. Reggie has soccer practice and he's getting a ride home."
Diane went into the kitchen and started making dinner. I played with Susie, watching her giggle and letting her tighten her strong hands around my fingers. I half expected a SWAT team to break down the door any second, or a few FBI agents to show up at the door and take me away in handcuffs.
When Diane left, I put the baby in her crib and went downstairs. The house was empty and quiet, the only noise coming from the traffic on a nearby highway.
The phone rang and I jumped. I picked it up, but before I could say anything the Prophet spoke.
"You did it. I'd congratulate you, but your life is in danger. They're coming for you."
"The feds?" I whispered, my hands shaking.
"No! Not the feds. The Beast of Babylon. You've got to get out of there. Morpheus and I are going to set you free tonight. Come to Chinatown. I'll be waiting for you." The line went dead.
I went upstairs to check on the baby. She sat quietly in her crib, her large eyes following me around the room. "You'll be okay, right?" I shook a rattle at she laughed a little. Then I gave it to her. Hopefully she'd amuse herself with that for a while.
I clamored out my window and climbed down the tree. I don't know why. Made me feel safer, I guess.
Time seemed to slow down for me. Things grew hazy, streetlights blurring and glowing in the evening light. I made it to Chinatown and felt like I could pass out from the fumes in the air. I was moving quickly, but everyone else was mired in quicksand and reaching for me, calling me to help them.
I found the Prophet in front of a restaurant on a busy street. This didn't surprise me. "The best place to hide is in the masses," he once told me. "Grab a mob of people and hold on for dear life."
He stepped forward to meet me. "Good, you're here. Morpheus is on his way. Don't worry, it won't be much longer."
"What's going to happen?"
A shrill ring hit the air. I gasped but the Prophet reached for his pocket and took out something that looked like a large telephone. He opened it and spoke. "She's here. No, I haven't seen anything yet."
He listened for a few seconds. "What? I can't hear you. You're breaking up. What? Something where? Dammit," he said and closed the phone.
"What the hell is that thing?" I asked.
"Just a telephone. We haven't really perfected the technology yet. He was trying to tell me something."
"My operator. Listen Trinity, the important thing to remember is not to be scared. I'll be there when you wake up. Things will seem strange at first, but I promise that you'll feel right. Trinity, I want you to know --"
I heard a loud crack. The Prophet surged forward as though someone had kicked his knees out from under him. I think I screamed.
"Dammit!" he cried, and I heard the crack again. This time his shoulder exploded and the bullet went through him and shattered the front window of the restaurant. "Ah, shit, a sniper. I shoulda known. Trinity, you get yourself out of here. Now."
The gun roared again. I looked up, my eyes searching for the shooter. I saw a gun pointing from the window of a warehouse across the street. Now the Prophet was bleeding. His pelvis had been shattered, his knee and shoulder blown out.
He cried out. "They're not going to kill me. Shit, they're going to take me."
"Where?" I whimpered. I hovered over him, my mind screaming at the sight of so much blood.
"They're going to make me talk," he said, his voice brimming with pain. "They're tearing me limb from limb to get me to talk about the resistance!"
I'd hardly noticed that people were screaming, fleeing in all directions. Only the Prophet and I were still.
"Unplug me, dammit!" he screamed, but now he was shouting to the sky.
"What do you want me to do?" I cried.
"Christ, why aren't you unplugging me?" Tears rolled down his cheeks. "I'm not strong. I'll talk. They'll make me talk." Then he looked over at me. "Trinity . . ." He reached up to touch my face. "This isn't how the story was supposed to end. I wasn't supposed to burn in the fire."
I sobbed, grabbing his bloody hand and squeezing.
"They're coming down here. You've got to get out. You're the one they want, not me." And then, without saying anything else, he hoisted himself up on his good arm and leg and crawled toward the restaurant window. He painfully climbed to his feet and stood in front of the shattered part, and then he threw himself down on the glass. His neck hit the sharp part of the window and split open. A red curtain passed over the glass where he fell.
I don't remember how I got out of there. In my memory I'm just running down the street, looking at the rust-colored blood on my hands, and I keep running.
Why did I go back to Glen and Diane's house? It seemed like a bad place to go, but I ended up there anyway. I burst through the front door, forgetting to climb back in the window as superstition dictates.
The house was eerily empty but I felt I was being watched. In the bathroom I furiously washed the blood off my hands and tried to wash it out of my clothes.
Then I remembered Susie. It was so quiet. But she was a quiet baby, perhaps she was just sleeping.
I bounded up the stairs and made my way to Susie's room. I couldn't see her in the crib. "Susie," I called. She didn't move. I could make out some small shape hidden in the blankets. I slowly walked over and pulled the blankets away. Susie was there, but her lips were blue, her small hands curled in white fists.
"Oh God, not you," I cried and took her in my arms. Glen and Diane's baby, dead because I hadn't cared enough to keep her alive. Dead because I cared only about myself, about my selfish escape from this life. On the floor I tried to revive her, blowing air into her mouth. Nothing worked. "Oh God." I wept so loudly that I didn't hear anyone come up behind me.
I gasped and whirled my head around. A dark man in dark clothes stood behind me.
"It's me, Morpheus. Don't be frightened, Trinity." He slowly drew closer. "I've been watching you this entire time. And now I've come to get you out of here."
I was so rattled by that time that I barely had a chance to absorb his appearance, much less his words. I went back to trying to revive the baby, wringing my hands over her small body. "This is all my fault," I wept. "I left her alone and she died."
Morpheus touched me and pulled me aside. He slowly took the baby out of my arms and put her back in the crib. "No. You didn't do this. She was strangled."
I felt like my organs had just turned to pulp.
Morpheus gently wrapped the body in an extra blanket. "Trinity, you've been looking for me, days and night for the past few months. But I'm not what you've really been looking for. You've been looking for the answer to a question."
"I want to know about the Matrix," I said quietly. I was shivering all over. "But the baby -- what does the Matrix have to do with the baby? Why would someone strangle a baby?"
"It's all a set up. Everything is a set up. You're being framed for something you didn't do. Come now." He reached out and pulled me to my feet. I didn't mind that he touched me; I trusted him intuitively. "You're in shock. I've got to get you out of here."
"This isn't happening. It really isn't happening."
He began to guide me out of the room. "You're right. It isn't. This life is a play, and we all have our respective parts. Sometimes things go bad, and that's when they strike out against us. Parts get mixed up, actors forget their lines, the stagehand loses the props. And once in a great while, when no one expects it, the theater burns."
He pulled me through the dark first floor of the house. Then there was a scuffle. I was thrown against the wall and I landed on the ground. I heard a gun go off. Seconds later, Morpheus was helping me to my feet.
"What happened?" I gasped. There was a body on the floor. "Oh my God, it's my neighbor."
"Yes," Morpheus said. "But it wasn't your neighbor when he rushed me. I'll have to explain later."
"The Prophet," I whispered. "I saw him die."
"He was a brave officer," Morpheus said. That was all he would say when it came to the Prophet. Even in my next life, I was never able to put the pieces together and discover who the Prophet really was.
Morpheus led me to a car that was sitting in the driveway. In the front seat I let my mind spin into emptiness. My eyes dried. I wasn't myself anymore. I was no one, not Trinity or Reese Martindale. I was standing outside of a smarting, bruised body and I was counting the stars. Yes, that's what I was doing. Looking out a car window, counting the stars, understanding that I could never go home again.
* * *
"Sometimes these things just happen. It's nothing you did wrong." This is Link, the medic, bending over to speak quietly to me and to check the cut on the corner of my face.
"Is she going to be okay?" Neo whispers, his voice hoarse.
"She's going to be just fine," Link replies. "I've given her a tetanus shot for the cut. And I'm going to put her on an IV anyway. The worst is already over. She'll feel a lot better in a day or two."
"Thank God," Neo says. He's holding my hand. "I've been so worried."
It sounds like he might be crying. I can't tell, I'm out of it. Link gave me something to take care of the pain, and now I'm lingering on the border of unconsciousness. I try to tell Neo that I'm sorry, that this is for the best, that I would have made a bad mother anyway, but the words just don't come. I'm too out of it.
It happened early this morning. I woke up and knew something wasn't right. Cramping, such pain. I quietly got out of bed and tried to make it to the bathroom, but I fainted and caught the corner of my head on a metal beam. When I regained consciousness I dragged myself to my feet and went into the bathroom, stripped off my bloody clothes and got into the shower.
I turned on the water and sat on the floor, letting it wash over me. A miscarriage. My baby was dying and I couldn't save it. I was drowning again. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I thought only of how Neo shouldn't know.
I might have gotten away with it but the bleeding didn't stop. Nala found me in the shower and went to fetch Link, and by that time I was wishing that we had a female medic. Then Neo showed up. It was the day he was supposed to talk to the agent. Of course, that is off now.
"Bring your knees to your chest," Link instructed. They covered me with a towel and brought me to the infirmary. I've been here ever since.
It isn't until the next day that I finally feel alright to get up. Link runs some tests on me in the infirmary. "Your iron's low, and your electrolytes are off. I've got some medication that will help that, and you should take a rest for the next few days."
He checks the cut on my head, stripping away the bandage to change the dressing. I still haven't spoken since the ordeal started. But Link is gentle and he doesn't seem to mind.
When he's done he hands me the pills and pats me on the knee. "You okay?"
I nod. "I'm fine."
"Good. Trinity, the important thing to remember is that this happens to a lot of women, a lot of strong, healthy women. It's nothing you did. You can still have a baby if you want. This won't affect your ability to have children."
I nod again and keep my eyes down. This isn't something I want to talk about.
"I'm sorry," he continues. His voice grows fainter. "I don't think you knew my wife, but she spoke highly of you. She was in the resistance for a little while and looked up to you for the things you've done. We all appreciate what you've done for us."
"I didn't know you were married," I say. He looks so young.
"My wife passed away last year. She was Matrix-born and had problems with her immune system." He shook his head and turned away. "I'm a medic and I couldn't do anything for her. It's a feeling of helplessness, you know? But I made up my mind that I'd work for the resistance for the rest of my life.”
I slowly get up and leave the infirmary. I need to speak to Morpheus. Luckily, he's in his private quarters but he's left the door open. I linger in the threshold. "Can I speak with you?"
He looks up and rises to his feet. "Come in." He closes the door behind me and sits at his desk. I take a seat in the chair he reserves for us. Because he's the captain, his quarters are bigger than our small, closet-like rooms.
"How are you feeling?"
I resent the fact that my health is now a public issue on our ship, but it's hard to keep secrets. "I feel much better today, thank you," I say softly.
"Good. I'm glad. We were quite worried."
I stare at my hands. "There's nothing to worry about anymore."
"If you'd like, I can arrange you to have some time off and recover in Zion."
I shake my head. "If it's okay with you, I'd like to get back to work as soon as possible. And . . . I'd like to start helping Neo in the Matrix. I've been away for too long."
He looks a little surprised. "Okay. But we'll have to wait until you're a little stronger."
"Fine," I say and rise to my feet. "That's all I wanted to talk about."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah." I turn to head for the door.
"Trinity," Morpheus says and rises to his feet. "I'm here if you want to talk about this. I know we don't discuss these things, as they're rather sensitive, but there are programs to help resistance women who want to start families. This is a . . . strange and demanding life, but no one ever said that you couldn't have other things."
It irritates me that everyone assumes I will have another baby. As if it's that simple. As if I planned to get pregnant the first time. "I know," I tell him before I close the door.
I look terrible. In the mirror, my face is pale and drawn. My lips are parched. I have a scar on my forehead now. I don't recognize myself and wonder if I was ever as pretty as people claimed I was.
On the ship, things seem very fine and normal. No one's been treating me differently. Tank is watching the Matrix code and Nala's helping out in the core. She's singing Bob Marley. I like the sound of her voice, and I realize that I haven't heard music in a long time.
She sings Freedy Johnston. "I know I got a bad reputation, and it isn't just talk talk talk. . . . If I could only give you everything you know I haven't got . . ."
I watch them from the hallway and they don't know I'm there. The ship is quiet. We haven't had sentinels in a long time. I love these people and I know they love me, and it's the kind of quiet, unspoken love that goes unbidden, and it's pure and sustaining. All I have.
And then there is the other love of my life. I go back to my quarters because I know Neo's waiting for me. And sure enough, he's sprawled out on the bed with his shoes and socks on. It reminds me of his first day in the training programs, when he fell asleep with his shoes on.
"Hey," he says when he sees me. "You're okay?"
"I'm fine." I go over and sit beside him on the bed. He looks more depressed than I've ever seen him. "How're you?"
"Ah, Trinity," he sighs and rubs his forehead. "What's wrong with us?"
"What do you mean?"
He sighs again. "I mean, for the last few weeks I feel like I've hardly seen you. Is it something I've done?"
"No," I whisper, shaking my head. "It's my problem."
"Why don't you share it with me?" Tears jump into his eyes.
Seeing him like that makes me want to cry as well. "I don't want you to have to deal with it. You're better off not knowing."
"No. I'm not happy. Are you happy? I'm dreadfully unhappy. This is a shit life. Being with you is the only decent aspect of this life, and when you keep yourself from me, it deprives me of the only sanity I have, and I know it deprives you of happiness as well." He covers his eyes and sobs silently. Then he removes his hands from his eyes and grabs my hand. "Is that why you didn't tell me you were pregnant?"
I nod. "I was going to tell you, though. But I was just looking for a good time. Neo, I'm so sorry . . ."
He sits up and embraces me. "I should have been there for you. Why didn't you wake me when you were having problems?"
"I don't know," I whisper. So he blames himself and it nearly breaks my heart. I resolve to tell him everything. "I have to tell you a story. About me when I was a girl." I crawl into the bed and get under the covers. Pulling him close to me, I stroke his hairline and start talking. "It's not the sort of story people like to hear. It's not funny or nice."
I start telling him about my life, about Kansas and my mom and my dad and Cecilia and moving to Los Angeles. I tell him everything I remember, about being a math genius and loving the stars, and about being a foster kid and almost starving and going to public school in Los Angeles. I tell him about Glen and Diane, the IRS, and eventually I tell him about the Prophet. Finally I tell him about Susie, and how her death has haunted me all these years.
When I finish, he's crying quietly in my arms. Pausing every now and then to look up at me.
I am stoical. "So you
see," I whisper, "I already had to look after a baby, and I fucked up
big time. I'm not a mother; I would be dreadful with children."
"That's not true. You haven't even given yourself a chance."
"She's dead because of me. I brought evil into that house."
"No, Trinity. What happened wasn't your fault. Agents must have killed that baby."
But I left her. I close my eyes.
"What happened after Morpheus found you?"
"He took me to a warehouse on the edge of town. And I took the red pill."
"And you woke up here?"
"Well, technically we were on different ship then. Gabriel Reyes was the captain, Morpheus his second-in-command. But Gabriel Reyes was sort of an extremist, and Zion didn't like his tactics. He wanted to destroy the Matrix and all of its people. So Morpheus became captain of the Neb and took me with him. Gabriel Reyes hadn't really wanted me in the first place. He thought bringing a girl onto a ship with a bunch of boys was a bad idea. There were fewer Matrix-born women in the resistance back then."
"Where is Gabriel Reyes now?"
"He's dead. Within months after the split he contracted meningitis and died. They can't do anything for that here; it's a death sentence. But I always thought that Zion gave him the sickness. They really wanted him dead."
Neo tightens his arms around me. "I didn't tell you everything about my past either," he says. "I said I didn't have any siblings. But I did have a sister. When I was three they found her in a lake near our house. She'd drowned. I never mentioned her to people. I think I might have forgotten her."
We fall asleep that way, our bodies curling around each other. My body is aching and needs the rest. When I wake, Neo's there and he's brought me my meal, just as I brought him something to eat after his first day in the training simulations.
"I'm not taking that meeting with the agent," he tells me. "Not because I think I can't handle it, but because we need more information."
"There are other alternatives," I say. "Working with an agent is not necessary to bringing down the Matrix."
He sits next to me. "No, but working with you is."
And if I've ever doubted his love, it was because of my own insecurities. I don't doubt it anymore.
We go back into the Matrix together, but not to fight. We simply want to be alone, pay respects to the world that created us. The Matrix cannot tell you who you are, but it can give you the words to describe yourself.
"The past is to be embraced, then left behind," Morpheus told me once.
Tank plugs us in; when I awake I'm standing near a payphone on a boardwalk. Neo's there. The sky is the bruised shade of early morning. We're wearing clothes that more resemble our ship rags than anything else.
"Where are we?" I ask.
"A beach along the Pacific," Neo says. "It's just a place I've found on one of my many travels."
I strain my eyes to see the ocean. Neo takes his hand in mine and we go to the beach and walk towards the ocean. I can smell the salt in the air. "There's no one here," I say.
"It's early. You should see this place in the middle of the afternoon."
"This is pretty. I forgot about how beautiful the Matrix can be. Our world is so ugly."
Neo squeezes my hand. "There are things I want to talk to you about. Things that are probably better left here."
"Do you want to see your sister again?" he asks.
I shake my head and stare at the tide's white caps. "No. Neo, it's simply a bad idea. I can't free her now. At one point I might have been able to convince her to leave the Matrix, but now . . . no, she's bound to this place."
"You could at least let her know you're doing okay, that you're still alive."
I've thought of this. Does Cecilia have a right to know that I'm okay, that I didn't overdose on drugs and die in an alley?
"Don't be angry," Neo says, "but I had Tank track her down. She lives in Pasadena. Her husband's a lawyer. They have two kids. She stays home and takes care of them."
I nudge the sand with my foot. "Then perhaps," I say slowly, "it's better that I leave things that way. Undisturbed. Neo, Cecilia thinks I killed a baby. They all do.” I pause for a minute. “Maybe they're right."
"But you didn't kill a baby."
I shoot him a look. "I was talking about our baby."
He's quiet for a moment. Stunned, perhaps.
"I mean," I continue, "I think it knew me, it knew the things I've done. It knew that it would be better off with someone else as its mother, so it left me. I couldn't keep it alive."
"No, Trinity," Neo says, grabbing me by my upper arms. "It's just one of those things. Nothing you did. You say you didn't want it, but I think you're just lying to yourself, and to me."
I break down crying, covering my mouth with my hand. He draws me closer to him. "I didn't want to lose it," I whisper. "I’d have loved it. It was yours, after all. From now on, I'll tell you everything."
After a while we separate and walk down the beach together. "The Prophet loved you," Neo says. "Did you love him back?"
I shake my head. "No, and I felt awful because of it. He died for me."
“He thought you were the One. Did you think you were?”
“To be honest,” I tell him, “I didn’t really think about it at all. I think Morpheus showed some interest in the idea, but it never really came through for me. By then I figured I was just biding my time, waiting for death. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I was waiting for you.”
Neo looks up at the sky and nods. "I need you more than anything," he tells me. "I've never been so open with someone before."
I try to smile. "We're both sort of socially inadequate."
"Yeah. At least we have each other. But seriously," he says, "I don't think you realize how lost I'd be without you. Like I said before, I don't particularly like this life. I didn't ask to be the One. It's the right thing, but it means sacrifice. It means I'm probably going to lose my life."
We're quiet for a moment; we've both considered this but have never talked about it.
"We've got a lot of fighting to do," I say finally. "And I'm going to get back into it. We have to destroy this world to save the other world and all its people."
The sky is brightening above us, color is blooming in the ocean. We stay for a while but not too long; we have to get back to the ship after all. “Think they’ll miss us if we stay and get ice cream?” Neo says.
“Yeah. I think they’ll miss us.”
“Damn.” He tosses a rock into the ocean. I reach over and pick up a piece of driftwood. I wonder where it came from, what oceans shaped it. It’s smooth and worn and oddly beautiful. I think I must give Neo everything I have, everything that runs through my mind, but I have to forgive myself too.
We turn to go back to the payphone on the boardwalk so we can exit the Matrix. The world awaits us there, the process of forgetting things, of leaving the past behind.