Young William sat on the lowest concrete step going up to his house. He had a corroded iron rod in his hands, and just then was scrawling shapes in the loose red clay at his feet. The far-Northern California sun beat mercilessly on his shaved head. At nine years old he already had the tough ruddy complexion earned by overexposure, reinforced by poor hygiene. The iron rod left brown rust on his callused hands. He'd grown up imagining car parts into toys. His rough digits felt more at ease handling shredded tires and their wire plumage than ergonomic video game controllers.
Recently, the folks from Golden State Robotics had come into town and scooped up all the junkyards' stock-in-trade. Including from the Pick & Pull down the gravel road from William's house. The truss rod in his hands was one of the last things he'd spirited away from that Pick & Pull. That and a secret treasure he kept hidden away. He called it a treasure because he didn't know really what it was, but he knew it was special.
No one knew exactly why GSR had started buying up all the junk. Rumor said they were building a fleet of intelligent, humanoid robots. But no one William knew had seen one or even heard of one actually walking around. He doubted the technology existed, yet.
William brought his head up as he heard the soft crunch of car tires rolling slowly along the road in front of his house. He looked up and saw an expensive black sedan with a man in the driver's seat. William stared, curious. Cars that drove themselves, now. He could see the man in the driver's seat looking down at a tablet in his hands, then peer out his window; then back down at the tablet, then out the window. Finally, the car stopped and the man tapped his tablet, agitated.
William stood slowly, a languid, energy-saving affair, and strolled over to the stopped car. He alternately dragged his iron stick and used it like a cane, to keep weight off his bad leg. He stopped a few feet from the car, just as his reflection became visible in its windows. He didn't like what he saw of himself. He kept his expression neutral, but couldn't keep from self-consciously tucking his withered right leg behind his good left one.
The man looked up, started, then smiled. William saw his lips move, and the window came down. "Well, hello there, young man," the driver said cheerfully.
The man hesitated for a breath. "Yes, hi. How are you, today?"
"Fine. You lost?"
"Well," the man laughed, half-way between sheepish and nervous. "Lost, yes, a little. Is this Strawberry Lane?"
"No. That's the next road over." William pointed south at a street parallel to his own, half a mile distant. "Go back out onto Old Oregon Trail, make the next right." William turned around to walk back to his stoop.
"Uh, thank you. Little boy."
William only shrugged, back still to the man, and kept walking.
"Say," the man called out, "do you know those folks, over there? You're neighbors, right?"
William got to his stairs and sat down. He peered at the man, eyes squinted against the harsh sun until only one was really open. "No. I mean, we're neighbors, I guess. Don't know 'em, though."
"Uh-huh." The man looked out over the dusty field to the street the boy had pointed at. A dozen houses painted bright colors, with manicured lawns. The front edge of a suburban tract home development.
Then the man looked up and down the gravel road he was on: four dilapidated homes on cinder-block risers; an empty lot that looked like a ransacked junk-yard. No, he thought, this boy probably doesn't truck with the 'neighbors' abutting on his rural poverty with their middle-class largess.
"Yeah," the man said lamely. "Okay. Well, thanks again, young man." To his car, he added a quiet, "Window up."
William saw the window go up, saw the man inside tap his tablet as the car moved off under its own power, then he went back to work drawing shapes in the red clay at his feet.
Several weeks later William wandered through the old Pick & Pull, looking for new stuff. A distributor cap here, a bit of timing belt there. He didn't know any of the pieces for what they'd used to be; he only knew they'd escaped the predations of the robotics company. He didn't quite deduce that all they'd left behind were the majority plastic parts, the rubber, and composites. But some part of William perceived that all that surrounded him lacked a certain strength.
He didn't exactly know they'd stripped the metal, but he sensed they'd taken all that lent even a little vitality to the stricken wasteland of automobiles that had once comprised his world.
He knew nothing he'd find would compare to his treasure back home. But he liked to look, nonetheless. After all, he knew how to play with a seat belt or plastic wheel cover. Besides, he still had no idea what his treasure even was, so couldn't really fret about finding anything like it.
William picked around in the dirt and debris, ignoring with practiced indifference the ache in his hollow belly and the oppressive heat on his skin. As he meandered toward the front of the yard he caught sight of the expensive black sedan from a few weeks ago. It was parked in front of the small shed the P&P owner, Perkins, called an office. The same driver now stood outside the sedan, talking with Perkins.
William stopped to study the stranger from afar. He couldn't hear anything, but he could clearly see the two men's faces. Neither looked angry nor particularly happy. Every once in a bit Perkins would nod. After a few nods, Perkins lit up with a big smile. Just as suddenly, though, the smile vanished, and his eyebrows came down in obvious anger. Then the stranger spoke quickly and animatedly, and soon Perkins was smiling again, bigger than before. And he kept smiling for the rest of their conversation.
The man pulled out his tablet, tapped it a few times, then faced it to Perkins, who drew his finger across its surface. William guessed the P&P owner was signing something. Then the two men shook hands, the stranger got into his car, and Perkins went back to his shed.
William frowned and started off toward home.
As he walked he saw the black sedan slowly crunch down the gravel road to the house just next to the P&P. The car stopped, and William did, too. The stranger got out and walked up to the front door of Mr. and Mrs. Casey's house. William circled around the field until he could see the Casey's front porch. Then he saw a very similar scene unfold with old Mr. Casey as he had with Perkins. Only this time both Mr. and Mrs. Casey dragged their fingers across the tablet. And Mr. Casey never got angry like Perkins had for a second, and Mrs. Casey had tears of joy glistening on her cheeks at the end.
The same conversation happened at the next two houses, too. Only a dozen yards separated each property, so William easily kept pace with the sedan. At crazy Rhoda's the stranger had to placate the two dogs, and at William's next door neighbor's they offered him a beer. The driver declined it. William didn't hurry, after, when the man drove over to his own house, the last on that road. He entered his yard just as the sedan pulled to a stop at what would be the edge of the lawn.
If there had been a lawn.
The car door opened on its own and the man stepped out onto the slightly different colored dirt that marked the footpath to William's home. William knew the path used to have stones on it, like the yard used to have grass. He doubted anyone could now see the difference in the two kinds of dirt, except for himself.
Then again, the man had stepped right onto the path.
William stopped just at the corner of his yard, and from there stared at the man. He had a dark blue suit, a red tie, and a bright white shirt. His shiny black shoes had dulled significantly at the toes where the dust of Shasta County's maroon clay had caked up.
"Hello, again, young man," the stranger said. "I'd like to thank you, once more, for your help the other day."
William shrugged his bare shoulders under his threadbare tank-top, and tucked his withered leg away, hating the shorts he wore.
"Yes, well. You see, I've got this tablet, and it has GPS and maps. But I only know from it what we've been told. Satellites can't tell what roads are called if there are no signs or—" the stranger cut himself off. "Well, anyhow. I'm here today to speak with everyone on your street. As you've seen."
William nodded. It didn't occur to him to be bothered that the man had been watching him watch him.
"I work for the State Government, you see. We work with big companies to make sure everyone in California is benefiting from the advancements in technology and growth of the economy. So," the stranger finished with a smile, "you can think of me as a friend; I'm here to help."
William stared back. The man's smile faltered.
"Well, young man, I understand you live with your mother, here?"
William didn't speak or move. He looked to have grown directly out of the hardpan he stood on, a stalagmite formed by drops of 120° sunlight mixed with the red clay over thousands of years.
"Uh-huh. Well, may I speak with your mother, young man?"
William shrugged, physically laconic.
"Okay, then." The man took two steps on the path when William finally spoke.
"She isn't home."
The stranger stopped. "Oh? Well, where might she be?"
"She might be anywhere," William bit off each word.
"I see." The stranger re-appraised the lad in light of that sarcastic comment. He sensed a lean precocity in the boy. "So, you don't know where she is, then?"
William shook his head.
"How about any idea when she'll be back?"
"If I knew anything about where she was, I'd have an 'idea' of when she'll be back. But I don't. Like I said."
The man nodded slowly, expression neutral.
"Besides," William went on, jutting out his chin, "if you could find her here, you can find her wherever else she is. Then you let me know when she's coming back.
William flushed a deeper red then from the sun, embarrassed at his own little outburst. He fought to keep from fidgeting, to stay defiant.
The heat and disparities of the station stood between the two of them like a veil. The boy could barely see the stranger for his layers of expensive clothes, his fancy car, his position of authority. For the naive questions about his mother's absence of indeterminate time, to locations unknown, for what the stranger couldn't possibly know was the hundredth time.
And William could guess from the man's blank expression that he was equally mystified. That he could barely fathom a nine-year-old with possible melanoma in ripped jeans shorts and stained tank-top, who barely seemed to sweat in the sweltering heat. Who apparently wandered fields and dirt roads and depleted junkyards with nomadic impunity.
After a long moment, the man said, "Okay, young man. Okay. Perhaps I'll try again next week."
The man started to turn but pulled up short. "Say, young man. I saw you playing around the old Pick & Pull."
William's spine went rod-straight, and a glint came into his eyes. "So."
The stranger put up his hands. "Don't worry, lad. What you do is your business. I just thought it's a little sad. That's all you have to play around.
That's all. Sorry I brought it up," he said, sounding sincere.
William relaxed a little. But he still took a protective step to put himself between the stranger and the house. Where his treasure was.
"Okay," the man said. "Next week, then." He turned and walked back to his car, which door opened as he approached. He got in and the door shut behind him.
William watched the man's lips move as he gave commands to his car. As the sedan pulled away, William walked back over to his stoop, keeping an eye on the departing stranger until he turned off onto the main road. He counted to a hundred a couple times, then raced inside to check on his treasure.
A week later to the day, the stranger came back. He passed the neighbors by, pulling right up to William's house. The man stepped out and waved at William, sitting on his stoop. Then he just stood there, for a moment, taking some time to collect his thoughts. He looked around the sere, blighted landscape. The suburban homes of Strawberry Lane looked increasingly out of place the more time he spent on the gravel roads that predominated the back hills of Shasta County. Dirt yards and rusted fencing, houses, and trailers on cinder blocks, seemed more representative to him, now.
He turned back into his open car. He took off his suit jacket, bent to put it on his passenger side seat, and grabbed a brown paper bag. Then he stood, told the car door to close, and started over to William.
William saw from his stoop that the car had new dirt under the wheel-wells, and the black of the tires had begun to fade. He squinted, one-eyed-like, as he watched the man approach. He listened to the crunch of the man's feet, the pneumatic hiss of the closing door. He considered how easily such small sounds carried in the heat of the day. He imagined, sometimes, that the Sun could dehydrate even the sound waves of a normal day so that it took deliberate effort to make noise.
The stranger stopped a dozen feet from William, just outside the shadow of the small house. "Hi there, young man."
William's mouth twitched a few times below his squinted eyes. "Hey," he croaked out.
"Not a whole lot of places to sit, around here. May I join you in the shade?"
William looked down at his narrow concrete steps. Barely a couple of feet across. He shrugged, pushed himself up to the top step, and waved at the bottom three. He was careful to sit far to the right, keeping his bad leg away from the stranger.
"Thanks, young man." The stranger came forward and sat.
William could now smell the unmistakable aroma of fried food coming from the brown paper bag the man held.
"Say, lad, we haven't really introduced ourselves. I'm Sal." He reached awkwardly over his shoulder with his right hand.
William took it. "William."
Sal took his hand back and gestured with the paper bag in his left. "Say, you mind holding this for me, William? I'd like to roll up my sleeves, loosen my tie. You can have some, if you like. Got a couple of burgers, some fries. I can't eat it all."
William just stared.
"Well, go on. I'd really like to roll up my sleeves. And I'd rather not have my lunch sitting on the ground. Plus, I figure you can have a burger."
While paranoia paralyzed William's brain, his empty stomach sent a signal to his hands. Before he realized what he was doing, he'd grabbed the bag, opened it, unwrapped a burger and taken a bite. He kept a tight hold on the bag as he chewed, not willing to jeopardize the fiction that his eating was simply a fair trade for keeping it off the ground.
Sal looked away, giving the boy some privacy. He took his time rolling up one sleeve, then the other. He loosened his tie and undid the top two buttons of his shirt.
William finished his hamburger, suddenly very concerned with not looking at the bag still in his hands. Sal pretended not to notice.
"You know, William, I don't think I'm hungry, after all. Suppose you could just finish off that food for me? I'd hate to lug it round all day. Still have a lot of driving to do."
William kept his eyes on Sal, but nodded and opened the bag. He felt around for the second hamburger and started in on it. After a minute of eating he felt a little more comfortable that Sal wasn't going to change his mind. He went ahead and put the bag down so he could fish out French fries, too.
"This heat, lad, it's something else. I don't how you folks do it, really. I suppose you, you don't really have a choice, much, do you? Being so young. I'm not trying to pass judgment, now. To each their own. But I certainly wouldn't choose to live here."
William's chewing slowed. The grease and salt and sugars overloaded his senses. But he determined to enjoy it. He let his eyes fall on the white skin of Sal's neck and arms. It looked unnatural, like the skin of church ladies and school principals.
Sal still looked out over the landscape. "I don't suppose your mom's hone today, either?"
William shook his head. But after a long second, he realized Sal couldn't see that. "No," he said around a mouthful of food.
"Well, then. Mind if I tell you why I'm here?"
William shrugged. "Go ahead."
"All right, then. You see, I'm here signing people up for something called a Universal Basic Income. You ever hear of that?" He glanced over and saw William shake his head. "Well, it's a pretty simple idea, really. Companies have automated so much—have robots doing so many jobs that people used to do—that lots of folks are out of work, now.
"It used to be just certain jobs. Building cars, or household appliances, the like. Robots started doing more and more of that work, but people still needed to make those robots. And people were needed to answer phones, flip burgers.
Well, not so, anymore. Now machines are flipping hamburgers, answering phones." Sal's voice dropped. "And there are robots making other robots, now, too."
William took all that in without much surprise or thought. He knew most of that. But something in Sal's tone had him paying attention. He finished the second hamburger and was taking his time with the fries.
"Now, young man, there's fewer and fewer jobs to go around for all the people. And when people can't get jobs, they don't have money. Well, at first no one cared. Certainly not the big companies. That is until they realized that if people had no money, they couldn't buy stuff; and with no one buying their stuff, the big companies definitely started to care. So a few of those companies got together and decided they could give some money back. Give it straight to the people without jobs."
"Like welfare," William blurted.
The man gave William a brief smile over his shoulder. "Yes. In some ways, very like welfare. One key difference, instead of coming from the government it comes from the companies. If a car company replaces every worker with a machine, that's millions of people without jobs, without income. So that's millions of people who can't buy a car, from that company or any other. And," Sal added in an odd tone, "it's not like machines can buy cars.
"So," he went on, "some of these companies have decided to get together and give money directly to the people without jobs, so those people will go out and spend the money on their products. Understand?"
William took a minute. "Well, I guess. Except... how do they know we'll spend it?"
Sal grunted out a chuckle. "Oh. They know you'll spend it. Let me ask you, have you ever seen a neighbor come into money and not spend it?"
The boy's face screwed up as he thought. "I guess not." He thought a little more. "But..."
"Well, not everyone spends the money they get on—okay, if the big companies want the money spent on their stuff... some people don't buy, uh, normal stuff. That kind of stuff, I mean."
Sal nodded. Making sure to look far away, he said, "You mean some people buy things they shouldn't?" Softly he added, "Like your mom?"
William threw a fry into the bag. "Yeah. Like my mom."
The man sighed. "Yes. Some people will buy other stuff. But eventually, the money still gets back to the companies. Whoever your mom gives her money to will go to the store and buy a new phone, or new clothes. Or whatever it is they think they need. If someone trades in their Universal Basic Income card for drugs, the companies don't care; someone is still holding that UBI card, and that someone will bring it to a sales register before long. You see?"
William nodded, putting it together. Then he said, "Okay. But it still doesn't make sense. I mean, if the people are spending money that came from the companies, then no one's really making any money."
"It would seem that way, wouldn't it? But trust me, William, the businesses who've promoted the UBI have put sane very smart people and machines to work on this. And they wouldn't be suggesting it if they hadn't found a way to make a profit."
"Now to... people like me-"
"What do you mean 'people like you?'"
Sal hesitated. "Oh... just, you know. Field agents. Grunts at the bottom."
William shrugged it off.
"Well, to people like me, it makes more sense to just get rid of money altogether."
Sal sighed. "I come through town after town, all up and down the Valley.
And do you know what I see? What all us agents see?"
William looked around at the white grass of the fields, bleached of life by the chlorine sun. He looked at the patches of hard, red clay. And he looked at the shacks on stilts he and his neighbors called houses. "Poor people," he said.
Sal nodded. "Lots and lots of poor people. Now, those folks," he pointed to the incursion of suburbia to the south, "they'll get the same UBI as you. But they already have enough money, don't they?"
"Yeah," William said, unconscious resentment heavy in his voice.
"Yes. They have enough for all they need, and all they want. Maybe they spend it all, maybe they save some. In either case, now they can afford the more expensive house, or a second house even. They can send their kids to private schools. But your neighbors over here, the Caseys, they get just enough to afford medicine. You get enough you can afford food.
"Two years, five years from now, that UBI won't have changed your life, or the lives of the Caseys. The people who don't need a leg up will get one. And you will get nothing."
William was about to say that medicine and food weren't 'nothing.' But then he made an intuitive leap. "We'll just get by a little longer. To buy more stuff." Saying it out loud made him realize how angry he was. "Mr. and Mrs. Casey can buy medicine now, so they can live a little longer. Live longer to buy more stuff."
Sal nodded. "That's how we... agents have analyzed it. The model for the economy has always required lots of people stuck at the very bottom, trapped there. Buying more things. Not houses, or paying for education. Just consuming products."
"So you think we should get rid of money?"
"That's one way." Sal shrugged. "Maybe there are others."
The idea appealed to William. He'd never had any money to speak of, and he relished the idea of no one else having any, either. "Then, say that. You work for the people, for the government. Say something. You said all the agents feel this way, they can't ignore all of you."
"Well, yes they can. Sure, we all think this way, but our opinions... we aren't supposed to have opinions. Especially not about this. No. If someone's going to say something, it's going to be someone like you."
"Oh, yes. Like you or your neighbors. Someone to stand and demand that in a world that can provide food, shelter, medical care to everyone, for free, then that world should. A civilization that's reached this point has a responsibility to do so."
William looked down at his withered leg. What Sal said seemed fantastical.
But it also just... made sense.
"What do you think of all that, young man?"
William couldn't take his eyes off his desiccated limb. "Why not?" Quietly he added, "If a person can help, they should. If people together can help... then everyone together should."
"That's exactly how I frame it. We should expect as much of society as we do of the individual."
William looked up and saw Sal looking back at him. All the young boy could think about was two working legs. He couldn't speak.
Sal looked away from the tears in William's eyes. "Can I tell you another reason I'm out here? The first, my job, is to enroll people in the UBI program. But there's a second reason. One my bosses don't know about.
"See, William, we agents can't speak out any more about the flaws in the system. And we can't do anything, either. Like I said, it has to be someone like you."
"What could I do?" William asked, sounding miserable.
Sal was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, he kept his eyes away from William. "As to that, young man, we have found something. A small object. Well, we haven't actually found it, yet. We've... theorized that a thing may exist, which could help someone like you. Someone from the bottom. We've concluded that should someone like you possess this thing, it could give you what you need. To make a difference."
William's breath caught. Could it be? he wondered. His treasure?
Sal went on. "When the big companies, like Golden State Robotics, started picking up all the metal from junkyards to fulfill the need brought on by surging production, they started coming across odd objects. Pieces from cars that were manufactured decades apart could fit together in remarkable ways. Seemingly random bits of junk—trash, really—could come together to form devices of unforeseen potential. For some reason, the blade from this refrigerator, the tubes from that old TV, and the timing belt from a specific car could all fall together in the heap to form a perpetual motion machine."
William's heart raced. His eyes darted around the yard, trying to spot the trap he felt about to spring.
"Well, people started running models. Simulations on what could be found in these junkyards, what objects might possibly be there. After a few million scenarios were analyzed, one object, in particular, kept caning up. One that could give someone the ability to challenge the Powers that Be."
Sal looked down to his alabaster hands and forearms. William sat, tensed, like a small spider caught in a comer.
"Now, William, remember: I want the system overthrown. I want it done away with. So, really, I don't want that object." He turned slowly to look William right in the eye. "Do you hear me, William? I don't want it. Because it wouldn't do me any good. Conditions would have to be just right for this object to even get formed, and it would have to come into the possession of someone... more like you than me. Understand?"
William nodded slowly.
"Good. Because, and I cannot stress this enough, whoever finds that thing cannot tell anyone. Not even me, or any agents like me. Whatever I know, they can know." Sal looked back to the horizon, hazy from dust and heat-warped air.
After a while, William asked, "if... if someone did have it, or think they did... what could they do with it?"
Softly, Sal said, "Why, a person could do nearly anything at all in the world, if they had it."
William bit his bottom lip. "But, how would they use it?"
"I don't know. One of the reasons I can't use it is that I fundamentally lack the ability to understand it."
William didn't question either end of that. He took for granted that adults couldn't understand lots of things, things he took for granted. And so he found it infinitely possible that they couldn't do things well within his ability.
"But, you know what I'd tell someone, William? Someone who did have it?"
"What?" he asked in a voice smaller than a fleck of salt dried on his brow.
"I'd say, this thing puts you in a real Catch-22, a real pickle. You know what that is?"
William shook his head, which Sal saw from his periphery.
"It means, 'damned if you do, damned if you don't.' It means that the thing that can help you is the last thing you need. I believe it can help a person like you get out of all this. But it's also the thing that, if a person like you revealed it, would attract the attention of the people that would keep you here."
"I'd tell whoever found it that the only way to rise up is to use it. But that using it means they'll come take it away from you."
William swallowed hard.
"As to how to use it... the person who finds it will figure that out. I believe that, too."
Sal stood and turned to look down at William. Despite how close he was, William didn't feel at all loomed over.
"I'll be off, now, young man. I won't be back this way. You tell your mother she can sign up for the Universal Basic Income at any County office. Even the ones that... she sometimes has to stay at for a coupla days."
William nodded. He looked down at the crumpled paper bag, and his crumpled leg, and tried to ignore all his crumpled feelings. He focused on his treasure, which might be the thing Sal spoke of.
Sal turned and started back off to his car. The gleam of sunlight on his white shirt and skin caught William's eyes. The boy looked up to watch the not-so-stranger walk away. When he'd got to his car, Sal turned back. "May I say something a bit personal, young man?"
William straightened. "Yeah. Okay."
"Your leg, William... I feel a strong empathy for you. That may seem odd, coming from... someone like me. I could never have been... it's not possible I could have come to have such a deformity. And I can still see how it should have been rectified at your birth. Or even before. But the other... people around you, who could have suffered like you, who should feel empathy with you, they have built a society which bends its resources to other areas. Instead of applying all its intelligence and will to the betterment of all humankind, they've dedicated themselves to making things like this." Sal put his hand on his car. Then on his chest. "And... other things. And I just want you to know, young William, that that's wrong. Even I can see that."
William tried to say something. But an odd pressure in his throat kept him from speaking. And an itch had begun in his eyes.
"Good-bye, now, lad. I won't be back this way. But I do hope we meet again, someday." Sal turned to his car, the door opened, and he got inside.
William dimly noted that he didn't hear Sal give the car a command. But he was distracted by regret that he wouldn't get to speak more with Sal. He stood and waved to the departing sedan.
As he waved he felt another feeling, pushing back on his sadness, pushing up from inside him to occupy his thoughts: hope. This hope gave him a jolt of energy with every passing second. Because he knew he had it, the object Sal had mentioned. His treasure was the Thing.
He knew it.
Matthew Cannelora's poetry has previously appeared in The Broadkill Review. He has twice participated in Writers in the Community, a workshop provided by Eastern Washington University's MFA in Writing program; his work has appeared twice in their regional In-Roads magazine. He has an ongoing mentorship through the PEN America Prison Writing Program, and self published a novel in 2016 (The Fable of Eddy Roux). In 2018 he helped start Ink From Within, a writing group for incarcerated writers working toward publication. This is his first national short story credit.