The Data Eaters
by Anna O’Brien
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The girl led Clarke by the hand down the gravel drive. This is my chance. Out of habit, Clarke had left the keys in the ignition. Feign looking for candy wrappers, receipts, anything to read, and then jump into the driver’s seat and peel the hell out of here. Her heart raced. Screw you, Jameson. This is not funny.
The girl squeezed Clarke’s hand. “OK, now me.”
Clarke broke her lustful gaze toward her truck to glance at the girl. “What?”
“Now me. You ready?” The girl grinned and scrunched her brow. “Feed me and I live, give me a drink and I die. What am I?”
What the hell?
The girl looked back at Clarke expectantly. “It’s a riddle.”
“Christ,” Clarke said under her breath. “Hon, I don’t know. I don’t know riddles.”
The girl scowled. “Fire!” she said. Then softer: “You didn’t even try.” She wiped at her mouth. They walked a few more steps in silence then she spoke again, once more cheery. “I spy with my little eye” — she looked around at the flat barren landscape surrounding them in every direction — “something silver!”
Clarke and the girl were both staring at the only silver object in miles. Clarke was unsure whether the girl had drastically dumbed down the question for her benefit. “My truck?”
“Mmm hmm!” the girl chirped, licking her lips. They reached the truck. The metal door handle seared Clarke’s hand as she grabbed it.
Oven-hot air boiled out when Clarke opened the driver’s side door. It made her squint. The overly large, gray government key fob, dangling from the ignition, swung back and forth. Just climb in, slam the door shut, and go.
“Poor people have it,” the little girl said slowly. Her stubby index finger was hooked in the trigger of the gun, which dangled carelessly. Clarke looked back at the girl. And the gun.
“Poor people have it. Rich people need it. If you eat it, you’ll die.” The girl smiled, hopeful.
Clarke frowned. This kid isn’t right. I’ll note this in my report. Notify child services. “Hon, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The girl’s face darkened. She stopped dangling the gun. “Think about it,” she said.
Clarke sighed. Another riddle. She eyed the keys in the ignition.
“My daddy said you always gotta think,” the girl said in a flat voice accentuated with a pout. She whined, “I’m getting hungry.”
Then it hit Clarke. She’s self-feeding. Clarke could just barely recall. Riddles, puzzles-some data eaters could use mind games as food in lieu of receiving data if they taught themselves how. If they had the gumption. This is how the girl was thriving in this desolate, illiterate place while the others were withered shells. She is plucky.
With a change in the girl’s tone came a steadier hand on the gun. “Hon,” — Clarke reached slowly toward the girl — “why don’t you hand that to me?”
The girl cocked the gun. Clarke froze.
“Poor people have it. Rich people need it. If you eat it you’ll die,” the girl repeated, slowly and emphatically. Her eyes narrowed. “What’s the answer?”
“Christ,” Clarke said again. I hate riddles. She looked from the girl to the open truck door, keys not quite within reach. Her eyes then fell on a stack of pamphlets littering the floor behind the driver’s seat.
Clarke’s shoulders slumped. Screw you, Jameson, in your air-conditioned office with your network availability. Screw your field protocol training. Screw your asshole treatment of rookies. I didn’t sign up for this. She shuddered, looking back toward the house. Screw you, you pathetic, backward desert hobos. Learn to read.
“I, I don’t know, kid. Nothing. I got nothing.”
“That’s right!” the girl hollered, a huge grin breaking across her tanned, freckled face. She hopped up and down, her cockeyed ponytail bobbing perilously close to slipping its rubber band confines. “Nothing! You got it!”
Clarke stared at the girl.
“The answer is nothing,” the girl sing-songed. “Now hurry up! Grab lunch. We gotta get back to the house. They’re hungry too, you know.”
Nothing. Like what I give for whoever is hungry right now. But the girl had raised the gun and trained it on Clarke’s chest. You’re faster than you look, you little brat. Clarke slowly reached behind the driver’s seat of the truck and pulled out a handful of pamphlets, filled with words and data. Food.
She slammed the truck door shut and followed the girl back up the gravel drive to the house.
“Your turn,” the girl said. “Do I Spy.”
Child’s play at gunpoint. What a review this will be. Clarke looked west out onto open flat land. The sky was white, and heat shimmered on the horizon. Sweat trickled down Clarke’s neck. “I spy with my little eye...” She looked for anything a color other than some hue of brown. There. To the side of the house. The damned corn feeder. “Orange.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “The cow kitchen,” she said in a huff. “Easy.”
“What? Your cows aren’t supposed to be in that. That’s restricted.”
The girl shrugged, impervious to the field agent’s admonishment. She grabbed Clarke’s hand and pulled. “Hurry up, they’re waiting.” With the girl in front, they trotted up the drive, hand in hand. From a distance, they might have looked like family.
* * *
Clarke sat in the same high-back chair she had been forced into hours before. The old couple were sitting in chairs opposite, while the girl bounced around the perimeter of the room, humming to herself. The old man had taken back the handgun and trained it steadily on Clarke. The woman held Clarke’s stun gun in her lap.
“All right now. Read.” The old man pointed the gun at the brochure in Clarke’s hands.
Clarke swallowed, her throat dry. She looked at the glossy pamphlet, a government document outlining various facts about the environmental conditions of south Texas, the robotic excavations of radium from the salt mines, the effects of ionization on desert dwelling fauna, the ecological implications for the survival of the tick fever tick. As she read, the man and woman closed their eyes and appeared to fall into a daze.
From title to copyright, Clarke recited percentages, ratios, regulatory statute. Sweat trickled down her temple. When she finished, her audience opened their eyes.
“More,” the man demanded. He wiped his chin with the back of his hand.
Clarke flipped through the stack of brochures she brought from the truck. “They’re all the same.”
“Then read it again.”
She hesitated. Use of repetitive data? Was this a learned trait? Clarke grimaced. They were adapting. Like animals. She reread the entire brochure. At the end, the woman politely stifled a burp.
Clarke paused again, her teeth clenched. I’ll be damned if I have to read this thing fifty times. “I think if there’s too much data update all at once, you’ll get sick. Like a starving person eating an entire meal at once.”
“Again!” the man said, a crazed tinge to his voice. The gun shook in his hands.
The woman reached over and put a bony hand on the man’s shoulder. In a faint voice she said, “No, she’s right. Put that thing down.”
The wild look vanished from the man’s face and he laid the gun back in his lap. The back screen door slammed and the girl — who Clarke hadn’t noticed leaving — skipped back into the room. She smelled of fresh manure, and her bare feet were again covered in corn. You little asshole. Feeding corn to your own cows even while I’m sitting here. I ought to write a citation. The girl came over and hugged the man around his neck. “You better?” she asked.
The man nodded and hugged her back. The woman smiled.
Clarke cleared her throat and all three data eaters turned to stare. Clarke paled. They do look savage. The rumors were right. You know what, Jameson? I’m actually looking forward to sending you this review. You’ve never handled data eaters, I’ll bet. I’ll wipe that handsome smirk right off your face. She reached for her databoard on the floor.
“Um, now that you feel... better, would you mind signing this form?” She shoved the databoard toward the family, willing anyone to take it. “That way I can just go out, check what I need, and be out of your hair.”
“Cow kitchen’s off-limits,” the girl said. “I spy with my little eye—”
“So you are allowing your cows to eat out of your feeder?” Clarke interrupted. “Is that true?” Enough is enough. “Those aren’t for domesticated livestock. That’s a violation of Regulation 315.1(b).”
There was nothing even remotely blue in the room, which was taking on sepia tones as the early afternoon sun filtered through the windows. Clarke shook her head. “How many cattle do you have on your property?”
“You can’t sell cattle that have consumed that medicated corn.”
“How many cattle eat from the feeders, which I remind you is federal property?”
“Look, there are multiple federal offenses here—”
“You better answer her,” the man said, looking at Clarke and tilting his head toward the girl. “You can starve us, but you can’t starve a child.”
“This is my...” Clarke started. Job. “Isn’t she too young to have a CFU?”
“Was her father’s,” the man answered. “My boy’s. We all had ’em. You all put ’em in us before she was born. Then we started starving. And you all didn’t give a damn.”
“Us? My agency had nothing to do with—”
“My boy liked puzzles. He figured out that if he thought about ’em, he wouldn’t get hungry. I was never fond of games myself.” He looked at his granddaughter. “But this one here loved ’em as much as her pa. When he got sick, he knew we couldn’t feed her, being as you put boxes in us and the cows were dying.”
“From tick fever, which is why—”
“So he removed his own and put it in his daughter. That way she’d never go hungry. As long as she had her puzzles. So she makes ’em up all the time.”
Clarke’s stomach lurched at the thought of someone removing his own CFU. They aren’t supposed to be able to do that. And reattach it to someone else? That’s unheard-of. Barbaric.
“For Chrissake, why didn’t you learn to read?”
“Who has time for that when you’re struggling to live off the land?” the man snapped.
“We didn’t think you’d be so—”
“That’s right. You. You all didn’t think. Not us. You.” The old man stabbed his finger like a dagger toward Clarke. They were both on the edges of their chairs.
The woman put her hand again on his shoulder and he sat back, resigned.
You-all didn’t think.
Clarke thought of the riddle earlier. Poor people have it. Rich people need it. If you eat it, you’ll die. Nothing.
Clarke considered the girl then looked around the room again, searching for something blue. “Hon, I don’t see anything blue. Do you mean red?” She nodded to the old woman’s faded house slippers.
“She ain’t stupid,” the old man spat. “Or color-blind.” He leaned forward in his chair and squinted at Clarke. “We ain’t the ignorant ones here.”
Clarke flushed red and swallowed and for a moment feared that CFUs gave mind-reading abilities, too. The little girl scrunched her face, clearly disappointed in Clarke. The field agent squirmed, this time not from a gun pointed at her, but from the disapproving and judgmental glare of a child.
“Your eyes,” the girl finally huffed, with a roll of her own.
Blue eyes. My own blue eyes. “Well, I can’t see those,” Clarke retorted but caught herself. That’s not fair.
The woman stood and walked back to the kitchen while the old man settled into his chair. “I think you better go on and take your leave of us now.” He rocked his head slowly back and forth and closed his eyes. The gun lay in his lap.
Clarke looked out the window and could barely make out the edge of the orange feeder. One skinny black and white horned cow plodded toward it. The barbed wire fence surrounding it was trampled, and a severely leaning fence post wobbled in the wind.
A light snore escaped the man’s thin, cracked lips.
Clarke sat back, defeated. She looked around the room for her stun gun. Damn. Another form to fill out: missing weapon. No: stolen weapon. She groaned. Even worse.
As Clarke stood, someone gently grabbed her arm. It was the little girl.
“Let’s go now,” the girl said, pulling Clarke toward the door. The girl smiled. “Your turn.”
There was no gun pointed at Clarke now; it was sitting uselessly on the lap of the sleeping man. I’ll grab it. I have the authority—
Clarke felt a tug on her arm. She looked from the gun to the girl in the yellow dress, with her hair stuck to her neck, flecks of corn still clinging to bare feet and legs. The girl was a mess. A happy, contented mess.
The pair walked out of the house, the sun merciless above them. Somewhere hidden in the scrub a bird screeched.
“Your turn,” the girl urged.
Clarke gave in, offering the only riddle she could remember from her childhood. “What’s black and white and red all over?”
The girl chewed her bottom lip, savoring the thought. “Gypsy when she had her calf!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands.
Again, the child perplexed Clarke. “What? Ew, no. A newspaper. You know: read, not red.”
The girl looked up at Clarke. “Huh?”
She’s probably never seen a newspaper in her life. “Forget it.”
They reached Clarke’s truck.
“OK, last one!” the girl said. She grew silent, considering Clarke closely. “Lonely and sad, riddles make mad, blind to the very end,” she said slowly. “Who am I?”
Clarke stared at the girl. Hot, completely exhausted, and, Clarke thought ironically, getting hungry, she was more than ready to get out of this place. To hell with this visit. To hell with the regulations. The girl distractedly kicked dirt onto Clarke’s boots. To hell with these data eaters.
Clarke shook off the girl’s sweaty hand and yanked open the truck door, tossing her databoard over onto the passenger seat and reaching toward the keys in the ignition. Salvation. She looked down at the girl still standing in the gravel. “Hon, I don’t—”
“Use your mind,” the girl said, tapping her own temple with a chubby index finger. Obvious disappointment crossed her face. “You don’t even try.”
Wisps of loose hair from the girl’s tenuous, lop-sided ponytail outlined the raised box at the base of her skull.
Clarke turned back to the truck, shaking her head, sympathy finally surpassing aversion now that her escape was secure. These poor people. The stale heat of the enclosed vehicle instantly enveloped her as she settled into the driver’s seat. Turning on the ignition, she lowered the windows and pulled away.
Before she turned onto the main road, she glanced in her rearview mirror. The little girl was still standing there in the dust, waving goodbye. Clarke reached into her glove compartment, suddenly desperate for something to eat. She found some melted gum and stuffed a wad in her mouth.
Looking back again, Clarke caught her own eyes in the mirror. Hollow blue eyes looked back, her jaws working the gum. Lonely and sad, riddles make mad, blind to the very end. Who am I?
What the hell? She shook her head and punched the accelerator with her boot, rushing to lengthen the dusty distance between herself and the house.
Copyright © 2017 by Anna O’Brien