Through the thin soles of her shoes, Sonia felt the cracks in the sidewalk widen as she got closer to home. The waist-high chain-linked fence of the front yard tugged on her backpack, unzipping it halfway and releasing the ends of two wires. Their socket plugs bobbed like unsure pendulums with each of her steps.
“Que no traiga esa brujeria into la casa! I already tol’ you ayer!” her abuela screeched from inside the house. Sonia caught a glimpse of her grandma’s forearms, folded across her sunken torso, secure in their most comfortable position. How did she always seem to know when she’d arrive home?
The tension in Sonia’s neck finally relaxed, stress she realized was not due to the weight on her back, but the growing anticipation of that first scold.
“Oh my god. ‘Buela, it’s not witchcraft. They’re just old physicals,” Sonia said over a pair of barking chihuahuas next door, “for my Halloween costume. Voy hacer un robot.”
Her grandma squinted at her and ambled into darkness in the direction of the kitchen, mumbling complaints. Sonia had outgrown prolonged nagging, though.
She opened the wobbly screen door, her bag ringing metallic as it struck the frame. There was some watermelon she’d cut up earlier waiting to be eaten in the fridge. The foil-topped bowl was cold in her hand as she reached for a slender bottle of chamoy powder in the cupboard.
“Ya empece la cena. Quitate de aqui. Put it back, Sonia!” said her grandma. In a perfect world, she would be the only one in charge of feeding Sonia.
“Fine, fine!” Sonia slipped it back into the fridge and softly stamped into her bedroom without the snack. She kicked her pink sneakers off, used inertia to swing the heavy pack onto the bed, and then sat with her legs crossed next to it. The mattress springs squeaked.
She pulled out the two easiest physicals to get to work on: a red Nokia phone and a Tamagotchi game, its egg-ish case cracked and yellowing. This first generation Tamagotchi in particular was written on such a small memory chip and in such a clunky language there was hardly room for any kind of firewalls or encryption.
She put the price of the items out of her mind, donned her oversized headphones and plugged them into a bespoke console. There was something comforting about physical data storage, something like how it felt to thumb through abuela’s old People en Espanol magazines.
Using a rubber mallet, she delivered a swift bump to pop open the phone. She wiggled the memory stick loose and transferred it into an adapter linked up to the console. It fit snugly. After flipping a few toggles, she set her sights on a glow screen, which flashed what looked like a palimpsest of random characters, erasing and reforming repeatedly, and, through the headphones, Selena sang at full volume, bringing pain (but also a kind of joy) to the inside of her ears.
“Ahh! FUCK!” She tore off her headphones, breaking the connection.
Grandma appeared in her doorway on cue. “Y ahorra no fuiste a iglesia, tambien!” she shrieked. It was clear she was waiting to let that one out for a while.
“Yah, ama! Dejame!” Sonia redirected the stress back under her breath, “A fucking glitch warning on the first download, of course.”
Her grandma glared at her and disappeared back to the interior of the house.
Sonia quickly calmed and then loaded an old script of her own design to unlock the information now inside the console. The glow screen flickered and centered forty-six low-res thumbnail photos of a brown Pomeranian. Jesus, it made no sense to put a lock on that. Unless.
She copied and renamed the file extensions of the photos to force-open them on a suite of a hundred or so old programs. Her glow screen vibrated as though it was physical, a custom alert she’d written for when the computer snagged a successful hit. In place of misinterpreted, jumbled characters, which is how text programs normally understood photos, she could see a hidden correspondence in plain language.
She dug into the phone’s previous service information by dark-googling its number. A secondary, pink glow screen flashed: Julian Castro.
“Fuuuuck…” she whispered to herself, then shouted, “Buela!”
“Que?” Sonia heard her grandma say distractedly, but loud and clear, from the kitchen.
“Ven, ven aca!”
Grandma showed up wearing a sarcastic look she’d picked up from watching the child actors of American television.
“Mira, los personal texts de el presidente pasado. That’s a year of school paid for right there. What did I tell you?” It was the pay off Sonia was hoping for after putting up with the vendor at La Pulga, who’d been all dilated pupils and grabby hands.
Grandma looked worried, “ Que ‘Halloween costume’ y que nada! No es peligroso? It’s not your phone!”
“No, no. Anyone who finds it, it belongs to. It’s a law,” she lied.
Grandma relaxed for the first time today. “Ah, ta bueno. Despues quieres atole o no?”
Sonia looked at her with a face that said ya sabes, then she said, “Si, si,” a sweet child, again. Abuela disappeared from the door frame. “And now I can finally pay you some of what I owe,” she said to herself.
Sonia heard the kitchen stove click on and the shifting of pans. Within a moment, she could smell the cinnamon in the room, and, on her skin, felt that the boiling water had added humidity to the air.
What a score this’d been. And easy to crack. Her grandma wouldn’t have to buy the groceries or pay for the cable anymore. She transferred the information onto a thumb drive and tossed the phone’s parts into a small industrial shredder.
Her eyes rested on the Tamagotchi. What could that little flattened sphere be hiding? And what about the more difficult extractions in the bag, the hard drives and the GPS and the talking Pee Wee doll?
She hunted for the right power adapter and plugged it in, just to see if the game would start up. Tamagotchi data cards were notoriously difficult to free from their protective cocoons. It clicked on and the little pet was projected onto the main glow screen. It spoke through her headphones and in subtitles:
Nema. Olam led sonarbil onis y on son sejed reac ne la noincatnet… and on.
Through the vanity mirror situated behind the glow screen, Sonia watched the reverse image of the text animate alongside the sounds in her ears. She knew the passage very well. It was the Lord’s prayer. When the electronic pet got to the end, it digitally morphed into a single, watchful eye.
She grabbed her throat as if to stop it from constricting and her eyes rolled back. Violent shaking in her body brought her from the bed to floor, where she continued to convulse for some time. For as long as she could, she held onto the peaceful smell of cinnamon atole and to the sound of clanking pans and utensils in the kitchen.