I was six. It was my birthday. A pink cake sat in front of me. It had edible honeysuckle flowers decorating the top. It was a cake a fairy princess would want complete with little gingerbread cottages and candy paths. I gave my little fairy wings an excited buzz and looked up into my mother’s adoring blue eyes.
The reality of my life was actually very different than my daytime fantasies. I lived in the biggest city along the west coast of a once great country. The great city was one of the first to rise from the fall of men run societies. My mother had been a young child herself when the living machines came, turned the lights back on, and began the rebuilding process. She once told me that they came from the frozen land far north along the west coast. Some looked just like humans indistinguishable from anyone else. While the other Evolved had soot black skin or, sometimes, blue-green skin, making look wholly different from everyone else. The black skinned living machines were led by a female who’s skin was like a china doll. Though, at that point in my life, I had no idea what a china doll even looked like. These flesh and blood machines called themselves by two names. The ones that could pass as humans were known as the Loyals and the black skinned ones were the Independs. The blue-green skinned ones made no claim to either group but focused on providing medical care for the surviving human population of the great city. All three groups were commonly known as the Evolved.
The great city had a name once before the last war that ended the last civilization. It was once called San Francisco. And some people still insisted on calling it that, but most now only call it San Fran. They say the city isn’t the same city from the turn of the century, and that it needed a name change to show that. I didn’t understand it at all when I was six, and I still don’t understand much of the fuss today. Many of the rebuilt cities up and down the west coast change their names to signify a new beginning. The new world was full of hope.
But that isn’t to say that it was all roses and sunny days. With a rose, comes thorns and with the sun comes the burn. So life in San Fran had its thorns and burns within the confines of its less affluent residences. My mother and father were not at the bottom, but they were not near the top. They weren’t alone in their struggle to feed themselves and me, they did this by whatever means they could. I don’t really remember much about my father, other than he worked for the Evolved. He used his mechanical skills to repair and rebuild the generators that provided power to the city and the sister city across the Bay. My mother worked in a soup kitchen to feed those that were less fortunate than us. She worked the kitchen because she had an innate ability to see the good in people and was able to bring that out in most everyone she came in contact with. To me, my mother was the queen of fairies, and she commanded her realm with a gentle hand. She always smiled and gave a hug to everyone who needed one.
Much of this story have been buried deep in my mind, locked away. Both the good memories and bad. It might have been a way to protect myself or maybe it is what children do who fall victim to the life that had befallen me. Whatever the truth is, it wasn’t until many years after my liberation that I began to recall the life I had before and here I have set the memories down for safe keeping. What follows is my story of my life before the Keeper changed everything.
It was my birthday, and though my mother had provided the ingredients, it was Ms. McCaffrey that made the cake for me. To me and many others, she was simply Grandma. During the day, she took care to watch the child in our collection of three-story houses that were sandwiched together. Each wall of one house was forming the wall of the one next to it. On our street lived a dozen children of varying ages from little Chechnya, a girl of four, to Romalis, a boy, who was fourteen. He was tall and gangly for his age and most of us kids considered him an adult, but he wasn’t. Romalis wasn’t a normal kid, he rarely spoke and often would sit on the step of his home and simply stare at nothing, all the while tapping his finger of his right hand on his thigh. No one knew what he was doing, only that it often attracted unwanted attention. Some of the meaner kids would tease or kick at him, and some of us would rush to protect him.
Romalis lived in the adjacent house next to where I lived. The house that I lived in was the first at the top of the street, so naturally, when I went out to play, Romalis was the first kid I would often see. I often would sit with him and watch adults going by, doing whatever it was that adults do. With some adult, Romalis would pause his tapping and make the briefest of eye contact with them as they walked by, then after they passed, he would go back to tapping out his code.
On this day, on my birthday, I sat with him while Grandma made my cake. The breeze was light but had a chill in it that promised rain. It had seemed to me that it had rained a lot that year, though at six, what does a child really know. I was looking up at the gloomy sky, and I said to the tall, thin boy sitting next to me. “Romie, is it going to rain?”
Romalis almost never responded to adults and never to the mean kids, but to kids like me, he did. He stopped his tapping and craned his head up to look at the gathering gray clouds and stared for the longest time. Then, still looking at the cloud, he answered, “Yes, it is going to rain, and we will get wet.” He dropped his head down and stared out at nothing in front of him. I watched as his fingers began again to tapped out his secret message.
Jennetta was coming up the street on the opposite side. When she was in front of the house across from Romalis and me, she crossed over. She was carrying a little box in one hand. She stopped in front of me and presented the box to me.
I looked at her in surprise and asked dumbly, “What’s this?”
“Your present silly.” Jennetta was my sister, and she was far older than me. She no longer lived at home and worked in a factory doing something that I didn’t understand or know about back then. She urged, “Go ahead Yoshi, open it. I can’t stay, I have to get to the factory for my shiftwork.”
I took the small box and started to shake it. Jennetta took a quick inhale of air and arrested my hand from shaking the box. I looked at her with questions ready to pop out of my mouth, when she said, “Open it.”
“Okay.” I pulled the lid off the small box and looked inside. What I found were a pair of small coal black, shiny eyes looking at me. Its small gray fur covered face, wet pink nose, and twitching whiskers looked at me. While I looked at it and observed my face, it took one little delicate paw and cleaned the back of one soft light gray ear. I shifted my eyes to my older sister. “It’s a mouse.”
“Yes. She’s yours now. Go ahead and pick her up.” The older girl fished into her pocket and pulled out a small paper-wrapped parcel. I gently reached in and scooped the little creature into my small hand. She was just the right size and the little mouse sat comfortably in my palm. Jennetta opened the paper and pinched off a small amount of gummy looking bread and proffered it to me to give to the mouse.
The little creature’s nose started to wiggle, and she stood on her small hind feet reaching for the morsel of bread I held in the tips of my fingers. I let her have it, and she took it in her paws and began to eat it in my hand. I let out a giggle of joy. I had never had a pet, and I was amazed at how small this creature was. I looked up at my big sister, “Can I pet her?”
“Of course. Here is her food. I got to run baby. Tell mom I love her.” My sister dropped the wrapped ball of bread into my other hand and left to go to work. The whole time my sister was present, Romalis stay silent. I looked over at him, and he was watching her back as she walked down the street to the corner, where she turned and disappeared.
I asked him, “Do you like my sister?”
He snapped his head around to look at me. His cheeks turned pink, and he opened his mouth, but no words came out. I noticed then that his fingers were suspended in the air above his knee. He shook his head and muttered, “No, not really.” His fingers began to tap out an earnest message on his leg.
“I think you like her.”
He reached a finger with his other hand and gently stroked the back of the mouse. He asked, “What will you call her?”
“I don’t know.”
He said, “She looks wise and old with her gray fur.”
I waited him out as he considered his own words. I watched his eyes, and he continued to pet the little mouse and think about her name. The edges of lips turned up ever so slightly, and he said, “Poco Nonna.”
I repeated, “Poco Nonna?”
“Yes, Poco Nonna.” I looked from him to the mouse and then back to him. He added, “It means, little grandmother.”
I repeated, “Little Grandmother.” I gently stroked the little creature in my palm and said, “Poco Nonna is a good name.”