All was not lost. It wasn’t like she’d spent the last of the savings on a roll of lotto tickets. Though, now that she thought of it, maybe it would’ve been a better idea altogether— no, 1,000 tickets wouldn’t have been a good bet, not by a long shot. And she reminded herself, for the fifth time today, that the last time she dipped under the mattress, she’d replaced all the Coin by the end of the week. Abuela didn’t even notice. She probably didn’t even know the value of Coin, anyway.
Now, what her grandma would know is how good it would feel to be in a new house, two-stories, that smelled like fresh paint and construction. It’d be on the northside, where the nice H.E.B.s let you sample sausage and fresh guacamole and even wine— all for free on Sundays around the time everyone gets out of church. Abuela would never say no to a glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon. With that thought, her backpack, full of the goods she bought and lugged halfway across town, felt less heavy on her shoulders. Even the cracks in the sidewalk appeared to blur and close seams. Todo no se perdio.
The swing door to the short chain-linked fence in the front yard was frozen in place by overgrowth and hardly open. She squeezed her small frame through, but twisted metal caught her bag and split the zipper. Two wires spilled out— their plugs bobbing like unsure pendulums.
“Que no traiga esa brujeria into la casa! I already tol’ you ayer!” her abuela screeched from inside the house. Her shouts weren’t loud yet they lacked details, as though she was yelling into a string-and-cup telephone. Sonia caught a glimpse of her grandma’s freckled forearms, folded across her sunken torso, secure in their most comfortable position. Why was sneaking out of the house so easy but sneaking back in so impossible?
The tension in Sonia’s neck relaxed, stress she realized was not due to the weight on her back, but at getting caught. The anticipation was always worse.
“Oh my god. ‘Buela, it’s not witchcraft. They’re just a couple of old physicals,” she said over the barks of the 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 was close to getting off easy.
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!” In a perfect world, she would be the only one in charge of feeding her granddaughter. Sonia, the girl who still had the flat, deep brown hair of her only son.
“Fine, fine!” Sonia slipped it back into the fridge and softly stamped into her bedroom. 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.
To get a quick sense of how good her items might be, she pulled out the two easiest physicals to get to work on first: a red Nokia phone and a Tamagotchi game, its egg-ish case cracked and yellowing. This third 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 getting her hands on material objects that held data, something like how it felt to thumb through abuela’s old People en Espanol magazines.
With 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 hovering 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.
Abuela appeared in the doorway as if on cue. “Y ahorra no fuiste a iglesia, tambien!” she shrieked. She’d been waiting to let that one out for a while.
“Yah, ama! Dejame!” Sonia redirected the stress back into a whisper, “A fucking glitch warning on the first download, solo mi suerte.”
Her grandma glared at her and disappeared back to the interior of the house.
Sonia calmed down, hooked the headphones back up, and loaded an old script of her own design to unlock the information now transferred and saved 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 an emulation suite of a hundred or so vintage programs. Her glow screen vibrated as though it was more than just a projection, 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. 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!”
Her abuela 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! You lied to me otra vez! Pero no es peligroso? It’s not your phone.”
“No, no. Anyone who finds it, it belongs to. It’s a law,” she lied again.
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 back some of what I owe,” she said to herself. There was no way she was wasting time at college.
Sonia heard the kitchen stove click on and the cupboards open and close. Within a moment, she could smell the cinnamon in the room, and, on her skin, felt that the boiling water was clinging to the air.
What a score this’d been. And easy to crack. Not enough for a house, yet, but it would buy the groceries and pay the cable for a long, long time. She transferred the information onto a thumb drive before tossing the phone’s parts into a small industrial shredder.
She eyed the Tamagotchi. What could that little flattened sphere be hiding? And what about the more difficult extractions in the bag, the Packard Bell hard drives and the Garmin 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 blob 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. 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 burning, 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 on to the smell of cinnamon atole and to the sound of clanking pans and utensils in the kitchen.
Sonia woke with her head cradled in the arms of a handsome paramedic. His gaze seemed perfected by millions of years of evolution to convey attentive caring. He spoke while checking her vitals, but she couldn’t quite hear him, and she didn’t need him to explain anything. The last hour was burned into her memory. She had laid frozen in cold grey on the floor, watching her grandma try to wake her, and listening to her shout in broken English into the phone at the emergency dispatcher until she collapsed.
The only person that mattered in her life was dead and Sonia would never be able to return even a fraction of the love that she’d received. But there, in her heart, grew space for a new purpose.