(For Ray Bradbury)
By the early 22nd century, guns were ubiquitous. Folks started getting trained on how to use them in kindergarten on account of all the drive-by shootings that took place. As a means of defense, a gun was alright. But it rarely worked as a means of securing justice. Perpetrators tended to get away to parts unknown before they could be shot to death. That’s where the Harkness Avenging Angel came in.
A Harkness Avenging Angel or a Harkness, or just HAA for short, was the major means most folks had for securing justice. Some wore them as medallions around their necks or as rings on their fingers or even their toes, but the basic, standard issue HAA stayed in the house. A typical Harkness was a little statue about 8”-10” tall that looked vaguely female, though some considered it androgynous. Its winged arms stretched high over its head, making a V shape. The eyes were represented by appropriately placed holes in his head. Most folks had HAAs made of plastic, but a few had pewter ones. They were more expensive, though not as pricy as the wooden ones.
This was how a Harkness worked. When someone wronged you, which was common, you went home and either picked up your Harkness or left it sitting where it was and started rubbing it. Some rubbed it on its midsection, others rubbed either the left or right wing. Some rubbed both wings. While rubbing it, you concentrated on the person who wronged you. And then you waited. At some point, in the middle of the night, the real Harkness Avenging Angel would come out, fly overhead, and mete out justice by means of a bright light that shone from its eyes. It was totally random who would be avenged and where and when. But the only way to guarantee that one day the person who wronged you would be punished was by rubbing your Harkness regularly and solemnly.
Folks don’t recall where or how the whole Harkness thing started. History didn’t exist anymore, because it changed so much that most folks didn’t bother learning it to begin with. So it didn’t really matter where the idea came from. Folks just knew that it worked, sometimes. In any case, it worked better than the criminal justice system. By the early 22nd century, the criminal justice system worked exclusively for The Betters. In the old days, The Betters were called corporations. That word fell out of fashion by the mid 21st century.
“Folks,” by the way, was short for “po’folks,” which was what The Betters called those beneath them. Folks tended to refer to each other in the same way, too, despite its derogatory undertone, or sometimes because of it, as a badge of honor.
HAAs were considered prized possessions because of their importance. Everybody had one proudly displayed in the living room. Everybody, that is, except Lillian. She had one, to be sure, it just wasn’t placed on the mantle or in an alter space or anything like that. She kept it on a side shelf in her tiny kitchen, where one would normally put a decorative vase of colored glass. It wasn’t so much a law that required one to possess a Harkness, but if you didn’t, folks would call you stupid. Most folks didn’t call Lillian stupid, just weird or unconventional or maybe a little crazy.
Lillian possessed a standard issue plastic Harkness, off-white and slightly yellowed from age. It once belonged to her Great Aunt Matilda, so it was sort of a family heirloom, even if it was only a typical, cheap plastic Harkness. That Lillian did not keep her Harkness prominently displayed in her tiny apartment annoyed her mother to no end. She always commented on its absence from Lillian’s living room whenever she stayed for a visit. Lillian’s mother only lived across town, but crossing town was sort of an ordeal what with all the bus hold ups and lootings and shootings. So whenever she did visit, she tended to stay for a few days at a time to make it worth her while. It was a little safer to travel by freeway, but she didn’t have a car. So when she had the money saved up, she took a cab and always told the cabbie to take the freeway. “Don’t be using those surface streets!” she always ordered. Cabbies never needed such instructions – cabbies knew better than the take the surface streets – but they always replied respectfully, “Yes, ma’am.” Fortunately, freeways crisscrossed all over the Flats, where folks lived, so no one ever lived that far from one, including Lillian.
So on one of her visits, as they sipped coffee in the living room of Lillian’s tiny apartment, her mother started on her usual tirade about the Harkness not being prominently displayed. “Those BS books have a better display than your Harkness!” she complained.
“Yes, Mother,” she said.
BS was another nickname for The Betters. It’s short for Betters of Society, the full name for The Betters. Certain things, particularly quirky things that didn’t do normal folks any good, like little personal libraries full of Good Books, were called BS things. BS was sort of derogatory, but The Betters didn’t really care. They just sort of smirked it off.
“Books won’t solve your problems,” Lillian’s mother continued, “but a well-tended Harkness might!”
“Yes, Mother,” she said.
“And given what’s happened to you, you think you’d be treating your Harkness real well, so that whoever did it gets what’s coming to him!”
“Shhh, Mother,” she said, “Ángel might hear.”
“Is that bastard here now?” her mother complained.
“Mother! Please!” Lillian said.
“Why isn’t he in school?”
“Because, Mother, school is too dangerous. Besides, I have all the books he needs right here at home.”
“More books! Goodness, gracious me! The little bastard needs to toughen up, if he’s gonna survive. The only way that’s gonna happen is if he goes to school. How else will he learn to shoot?”
“There are other ways to get tough, Mother.”
“Through books? That’s just BS! Won’t do that bastard one bit of good!”
Her mother scoffed and continued drinking her coffee.
It wasn’t that Lillian’s mother hated her grandson. He was a polite boy, though rather insular for a nine year old. He stayed inside and read all the time to avoid playing outside and getting shot at during drive-bys like most of the other kids. Lillian’s mother didn’t take to the name too much, because it was a Spanish name and even among the Flatlanders, another name for po’folks, a Spanish name was considered the lowest of the low. Never mind that 80% of the people spoke Spanish by that time, it was still considered low for True Americans to speak it, except when ordering tacos or burritos or the like. Lillian wasn’t Mexican or some other Spanish speaking sort of person. She was a True American, like her mother. But still, she named her son Ángel, and her mother had to live with it. Lillian’s mother called him a little bastard, though, because that’s what he was. No one knew who his father was, seeing that he was the result of a rape.
“If you take my advice, you’d rub your Harkness, and rub it hard, so that the man who did that to you gets what’s coming to him!” her mother repeated.
“Ángel was born from pain,” she said very softly, “but he is a gift, Mother.”
She scoffed again and drank her coffee.
Lillian didn’t report the rape to the police. Folks rarely reported crimes.
First, the police formed a part of the criminal justice system, which was owned and controlled by The Betters. It was a BS thing, in other words. As employees of The Betters, the police usually concerned themselves with Bigger Issues, such as trespassing or tenant eviction or robberies at banks or other Official Institutions. Cities had small police forces anymore, so what few officers existed had to concentrate on the Bigger Issues, for the betterment of Society. It was common knowledge that when smaller issue crimes like rape or murder were reported, they were filed on a piece of paper – they never filed smaller issue crimes in the computer – and then tucked away in a file drawer somewhere never to see the light of day again. It’s said that deep under City Hall was a file room miles long filled with filing cabinets stuffed with smaller issue crimes that never got investigated.
Second, common wisdom had it that 9 times out of 10 the crime victim probably had it coming in some way or another. Why bother reporting something that was your fault to begin with? Or so the story went. The police gave a sour look whenever someone came in to report a smaller issue crime. “Look, just go home and rub your HAA, alright? I’m busy,” they usually said.
“You know, the only justice in this world is through your Harkness, my dear,” Lillian’s mother said. “You have to take care of it and respect it, and then maybe one day you’ll be avenged. You know what they say, if you don’t have money, you better have a Harkness!”
“Yes, Mother,” Lillian said.
“Now back in my day, with the plug-in Harknesses, you didn’t always live to see your avengement day. No sir. Sometimes, when you rubbed your Harkness Angel too hard, it would spark, and that would be the end of that. But nowadays, you don’t have to worry about that. The Harknesses don’t have to be plugged in to work anymore.”
“Yes, Mother,” Lillian said. She then got up and took a small book from her little library and sat down again and began reading it.
Books were a rarity. Stores that sold books, or “book stores,” died ages ago. Tons of books used to be available on the Internet, but by that time most had been erased. If they didn’t sell well, they had to make room in the Cloud for ones that did, so the story went. And the last public library closed decades ago. The Betters generally had them for show in their large homes. And as it happened, Lillian used to work for a Better as a domestic. They gave her books as birthday or Christmas presents, because she liked them so.
Lillian’s mother looked at her with scornful eyes.
“You know,” she said, her voice somewhat softened, “if your little bastard was such a ‘gift,’ then you wouldn’t have lost your job over him.”
The Betters generally, though not always, let their domestics go when they got pregnant. In Lillian’s case, she was abruptly terminated.
“They were very generous to me, Mother,” Lillian said.
“Some chump change and some books? Big deal! If they really wanted to help you, they would have given you one of their fancy Harknesses. Didn’t they have one made of marble or jade? That would be worth something!”
“It would only get stolen, Mother,” Lillian said.
“It’s not like they need a Harkness to begin with, you know. They have security guards and cameras and stuff, so they always catch the people trying to wrong them. Boy, do they catch ‘em! Look what happened to your stupid father.” Lillian grimaced, hoping her mother would not retell that gruesome tale. Fortunately, she refrained. “I think they have Harknesses just for show. It’s a BS thing.”
When Betters lost their job, a rarity anymore, they received a generous Golden Parachute worth more than what they had been paid in the first place. Folks didn’t receive that, of course, but Lillian’s employer did give her a generous Tin Parachute which consisted of a little money, some loan forgiveness, and a few of crates of books. She prized the books more than anything.
“It is through the books, that I’ll be avenged,” she muttered to herself.
“What was that?” her mother said. “What did you just say?”
“Nothing, Mother,” Lillian said.
To be continued. . .
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.