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Excerpt

“SCS 750”

T. Coraghessan Boyle

September 13, 2022 
The following is a story from T. Coraghessan Boyle's I Walk Between the Raindrops. Since the mid-1970s, Boyle has published eighteen novels and twelve collections of short stories. He won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1988 for his third novel, World’s End, and the Prix Médicis étranger (France) in 1995 for The Tortilla Curtain. His novel Drop City was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award. He is a Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Southern California.

At first, we tried wearing masks to throw off the facial-recognition algorithm just to see what would happen, but the cameras were able to identify us by our body movements, the way we walked, held our shoulders, flicked our fingers to the brims of our caps when the wind came hurtling down Zhima Credit Street. The whole thing—charade, whatever you’d like to call it—was Devin’s idea, and I do want to emphasize this point: it was Devin’s idea, not mine. Trust me on that.

It happened like this: we were sitting around my apartment one afternoon not long after the rating system went mandatory, wondering if we could buy alcohol, Juul pods, and video games without them keeping track of just how much we were using, and Devin said, “We wear masks, that’s all—and maybe baggy old clothes from the Goodwill or wherever. What do you think?”

We would have to pay in cash, of course, so there would be no credit record, though cash was frowned upon just about everywhere but the black market. And you didn’t want to go there. You definitely did not want to go there. If they caught you negotiating for anything on the black market, no matter how innocuous or even socially positive—diapers, Windex, acai juice—your score would plummet out of sight. “I don’t know,” I said. “Why bother?”

“Because I like to vape? Because I’m bored with Red Dead Resurrection and I want to be able to buy more than two games a month without having to worry about what it’s going to do to my score?” He gave me his choking-dog look. “Masks, come on—how are they going to know?”

The masks were state of the art, Second-Skin Silicone, a whole universe beyond the ones you saw in the old movies like Mission Impossible and Face/Off, each one made individually to conform to your bone structure so that no one who wasn’t right there in House of Magic with you when you bought it would have suspected a thing. I chose a generic face, snub nose, balanced ears, lips that weren’t nearly as puffy as the ones I’d been born with (and always hated—my nickname through five long years of elementary school was Blowfish). I liked the mask so much I was about to walk out of the store with it on before Devin caught hold of my arm and pointed out that it would defeat the whole purpose—the first street camera would capture the image, check it against the database and my purchase history, and know just whose face underlies the mask inside of thirty seconds. So we took our masks home in a bag, pulled them on, and played around with them in the apartment all afternoon, trying on different outfits and throwing our voices to confuse the voice recognition systems on the video feeds—we even watched sitcoms for a while, trying to mimic the way this character or that talked. As soon as it got dark we went to Zhima Liquor, where the girl behind the counter tried to act as if she’d never seen cash before (until she didn’t, and took it), and then we tried GameStop and got what we wanted without having to jump through too many flaming hoops. It was pretty exhilarating. We got drunk and played games and felt we’d gotten away with something, which made it all the more exhilarating.

Right. Sure. Who were we trying to kid?

The next day when I got home from work—within five minutes of walking in the door—a representative from the Ministry of Public Safety was pushing the buzzer. What did she want? She just wondered if I had a moment to chat, that was all. She was a girl, actually, more or less my age, dressed all in black, with her straight black hair cut so it framed her face like the folded wings of a bird. Her eyes were the same color as her hair, and they gave up nothing.

“So what’s this about?” I asked, even as she edged into the room, set her z-Pad on the coffee table, and brought up the video of Devin and me in the liquor store. She didn’t say a word, just stared at me.

I wanted to tell her it was Devin’s idea, not mine, but I could see from the look she was giving me that it wouldn’t have mattered. “It was just a joke, that was all,” I said.

Her lips were made of stone. They never moved except when she spoke. “Not a very funny one, I’m afraid.”

“Come on, we were just goofing around. No harm done, right?”

“Halloween’s in October,” she said. She might have been pretty if she smiled, but I got the sense that smiling wasn’t part of her job description.

“Come on,” I repeated, a whining tone creeping into my voice. “This isn’t going to cost me points, is it?”

I was too young to remember a time before our leader became our leader, but I did have enough experience in my teens and now my early twenties to compare the way things were ten years ago and the way they are now. Which didn’t make me a critic or rebel or anything even close—I was like anybody else, happy to live in a society where we could all prosper and love one another and work toward a common goal without worrying about getting ripped off or defrauded or attacked in a dark alley (actually, there were no dark alleys anymore, except in the cop shows on TV, but you get the point). Regimes of the past may have used punishment as a way of enforcing laws and regulations, but the Social Credit Score program was more reward/reward, like vying for gold stars on your report card when you were a kid. It was self-regulating, that was the beauty of it, everybody doing everything they could to raise their score and avoid any hint of negativity. As our leader says, “Zhima Credit ensures that all roads are open to the good citizens, while the bad ones have nowhere to turn.”

It was a guy, older, in his thirties, who came to Devin’s door, and he was no sunny personality either. Devin told me about it the next night when we were shooting hoops at the park, and he seemed genuinely put out when I told him I’d been docked 10 points, my score (which had been on shaky ground anyway after my second jaywalking citation) dropping to 605 on a scale that topped out at 800, a level only our leader and a few celebrities attained, and his problem with it wasn’t necessarily that I’d been penalized 10 points but that he’d been docked 20.

“Well,” I said, “it was your idea.”

He gave me that gagging look again, the ball thumping rhythmically under the wrist action of his right hand. “It’s not like I had to twist your arm or anything. And it was just a goof, right? I mean, are you telling me we’re living in a society where you can’t even have a sense of humor? Or what, tell a joke?”

“Not lame ones,” I said. “And that’s all you know.” “Did I ever tell you the one about—”

“Yes,” I said, and we were both laughing.

The ball thumped, but he made no move to take a shot. A pair of doves, too slick looking to be certifiable, came in low, then made a graceful arc and perched on the electric wires overhead. “You know what? I’m not done yet. There’s got to be a way to score what we want, like a case of Sapphire gin or enough Juul pods to last a year, or what, porn, without this constant shitty oversight, because really, so what if I want to jerk off in my own bedroom or play FlexKill III all weekend? How does that hurt anybody?”

I was stunned. His score was already hovering around 550, and if it dropped any lower he could find himself in that gray zone where you had to ride third class on the train and couldn’t go to any of the resorts on vacation and might even have a problem just keeping your job. A perfect score was out of sight, but anything in the 700 range put you on the fast track to all the perks, from air travel to renting a car without putting down a deposit to getting prime seats at a concert and discounts on just about everything. I’d never heard of anybody below 500, which was the territory of pariahs and foreigners and other marginal types. Anything south of that and you might as well shoot yourself. “Count me out,” I said, and even as I said it, he feinted to my right and drove past me for a perfect lay-up.

That was around the time Jewel came into my life. I was on my way home from work, thinking I’d kick back with this new game I was obsessed with (WraithQuest, which seems a thousand years old now, but was the hottest thing going back then) and just microwave something out of the freezer and wash it down with a couple of beers, when I saw her coming up the street toward me, oblivious, her eyes on her phone. I recognized her from work, though I’d never spoken to her and, in fact, hadn’t seen her in the building for a while, if she was even still there, and I felt my face flush as I tried to think of what to say to her beyond, “Hi, how’re you?” Or, even lamer, “Long time, no see.”

She was in a short skirt and white leggings that dropped into a pair of red ankle boots and some kind of satiny blouse that caught the light and threw it back again. I saw that she’d cut her hair in the style of the girl from the Ministry of Public Safety, like that was the thing now—bird’s wings—and she had on a pair of eyelashes that must have been fifteen millimeters long, which, I had to admit, I found very sexy. Just as we were about to draw even, she looked up from her phone, stopped right there in midshuffle, and gave me a smile. “I know you, don’t I,” she said, making it more a statement than a question, as if she’d been aware of me all along and had the phrase right there on her lips. After I fumbled around a bit—was she still at Alibaba, because I hadn’t seen her there like for weeks, or no, months, wasn’t it—and she told me she’d gone over to WeChat, which was only like three blocks away and she was making better money and thought she was happier there, not that Alibaba hadn’t been good to her—I asked her if she was doing anything and she said no. So we went to a bar I knew where they had a killer sound system and people hadn’t started clipping their score badges to their breast pockets yet, which was about as obnoxious a form of self-promotion as I could think of. This was a neighborhood bar, my neighborhood bar, or the closest thing we had to one. The patrons were mostly people our age, so it was cool, very cool, and whoever designed it framed everything—from the bar top to the molding to the mullions on the windows—with thin neon tubing in the soothing blue your phone gave back when you reached a 750 score (not that I’d experienced anything like that yet, but I had aspirations, which, in fact, was the name of the bar itself, looped over the front door in the same cool color only in letters three feet high).

She ordered a watermelon-cucumber mimosa and I had a beer, which was what I would have had if I’d gone home. A minute later I was watching the way her lips—her taut, glistening model-slim lips—pursed in a miniature O over the tip of her striped paper straw, and I was glad I hadn’t. The sound system offered up a feast of the music I liked best, and we found we had a common bond there, and then she told me about herself (living at home, one sister, one brother, a cat, a hamster, and a tank of neon tetras), and I told her whatever there was to reveal about my boring life without making it sound so boring as to drive her away. Finally, over the third drink, we revealed our scores, because there was nothing more intimate than that unless you were one of these rawbies that went around wearing them on their shirts. She was a 715, and I was impressed. And took her word for it, because she didn’t offer to display it on her phone. Which would have been rude, right? And because she wasn’t rude, wasn’t flaunting it, it made me like her all the more. When I told her about the mask adventure she laughed—“That sounds so cool!”—but made an elaborate sad face when I told her what it had done to my score. “That and two jaywalking citations inside of a month,” I added, feeling a little surge of panic at the thought that she might get up and walk out the door.

But she didn’t. She just waved her forefinger back and forth and said, “You naughty boy. Didn’t your mother ever tell you to cross at the light?”

A few nights later I was back at Aspirations, this time with Devin, and if I’d been thinking about Jewel off and on all day, being there brought it back to me in a kind of golden haze, and I couldn’t help envisioning her sitting there beside me, instead of him. As if that weren’t enough, there were two girls in a booth by the window, both of them sporting bird’s-wing cuts and sipping mimosas, and I saw it as a sign. I had to call Jewel, ASAP, before she forgot about me (and in the process maybe see if she was doing anything later tonight). I was working up my courage to go dial her number in one of the stalls in the men’s because I didn’t want Devin or anybody else hearing what I had to say, when Devin laid a hand on my arm. “You know I’m in trouble, don’t you?” he said. I felt a tick of alarm. He was making one of his tragic faces, the one he liked to call “Death in the Afternoon,” his eyes like cue balls and his chin plunging to his chest, only I could see he wasn’t putting me on, not this time. “What do you mean?” “I mean I’m fucked.”

The bartender set two fresh beers down beside the ones we hadn’t finished yet—without asking. We were regulars, so why not? We were trustworthy. We were known. We had privileges. I drained the old beer, which was still more or less cold, and took a tentative sip of the new one. “Yeah, go on—you’re not going to keep me in suspense, are you?”

That was when he slipped his phone out of his pocket, and holding it down out of sight below the bar so nobody could see, showed me the screen.

I don’t want to say I was shocked—in reality, I could have seen this coming a long way off, the mask incident and what he’d said about gaming the system on the basketball court like flares shooting off the deck of a ship plowing into a reef—but I couldn’t help sucking in my breath when I saw the color. The screen was orange. I’d never seen anybody with an orange screen before except Freddie Cheung, who was expelled from our local branch of Zhima Credit University for bringing a tuna sandwich and a bottle of Snapple into the exam room for Third-Level Finals (somebody claimed he had the answers inscribed in nanoscript on the underside of the bottle cap, which was never proven, not that it mattered—if the camera says you did it, you did it). I wanted to come up with a quip—that was how we related, how we’d always related all the way back to elementary school, when he was the only kid to stick up for me when the bullies came round pinching me till I bruised and calling me Blowfish and Blobber Lips and the like—but I couldn’t find the words. “Jesus,” I said, “what did you do?”

He shrugged, pressed the new beer to his mouth, swallowed, fought back a belch. The song that was just then playing (“One Drop Bosco Roy,” a ska/C-pop tribute to our leader that I usually couldn’t get enough of) seemed to disappear down some aural canyon. “They’re accusing me of a speech crime.”

I felt afraid suddenly—for him, yes, but most of all for myself. In the eyes of the system, you were who you hung out with, and if your friends’ scores dropped—or your family’s, even your second cousin’s—it could adversely affect your own. “You’re messing with me,” I said.

He shook his head dolefully. “I wish.” The beer bottle went to his lips again, but he didn’t drink, as if his throat had stopped up, as if he didn’t even deserve the consolation of a cold beer after work. “It was last week on the basketball court? The doves, remember?”

It was amazing what they could do with animabots these days—they had feathers, beaks, eyes, their wings even flapped. “Aw, shit,” I said, and I was frantically trying to reconstruct our conversation that day. Had I said anything? Had I been complicit? “They’re claiming I have individualistic goals. They’re saying I’m a drunk because I want to buy more than one bottle of gin at a time. They’re saying I’m a backslider and a traitor to the spirit of Zhima Credit. And Larry Soloso, my boss? He’s saying don’t bother coming back to work till this screen’s as blue as the sky at noon.”

Jewel told me to meet her at Plus-Citizens, a dance club on the other side of town. Her voice was whispery and confidential, as if we’d been dating for months, and though the guy one stall over was vomiting with a machinelike gasp and snort that I was afraid she could hear over the line, I felt elated, felt like I was already in love. I got the feeling Devin wanted me to stick around, have a third beer, a fourth, buddy up when he needed it most, but I told him I had a date.

“You? A date?” He dredged up his eyes, grinning, and gave me his Rocket-to-Mars face. “Is it somebody you met online? No, come on, don’t tell me you’re posting on WeDate?”

I was uneasy, I have to admit, on a number of counts. First and foremost was the knowledge that the surveillance cameras were picking up everything. I wasn’t saying anything that could be interpreted as untrustworthy or even remotely negative (dating was a plus, dating could lead to marriage and the production of additional trustworthy citizens, to homeownership and diaper buying), but here I was in conversation, intimate conversation, with a guy who had an orange screen, and what did that say about me? Plus, I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss Jewel with him anyway, even if we were sealed in a meat locker or a time capsule. What I felt about her—or what I was beginning to feel about her—was private, strictly private. I said, “It’s just some girl from work.”

“Really? Is she hot?”

I felt myself blushing. I didn’t know what to say so I just nodded.

“You got a picture?”

“Uh-uh,” I said, shaking my head, and I don’t know why I denied it, because I had seven selfies of the two of us I took the night we were here for drinks, and I must have studied them a hundred times in the interval.

His grin vanished. “Bullshit,” he said, “you don’t have a date. You just want to get rid of me. I’m a liability now, right? All those years, all the shit that went down between us, what does it mean? Nothing, right?”

I pulled out my phone, which glowed a copacetic lima green, the hue that would give way to forest green and then teal and turquoise as you moved up the scale to powder blue, periwinkle, and finally the deeper blues. I didn’t say anything, just brought up a picture of me with my arm around her as she leaned in close for the selfie, her eyes wide and her lips ever-so-faintly aglow with the residue of her third mimosa.

Jewel was waiting for me out front of the club, her shoulders hunched in a tight pink rayon jacket, her purse slung over one shoulder and a cigarette at her lips (which alarmed me, because it could cost her, depending on how many she smoked daily; I didn’t smoke myself, but I’d heard from a smoker friend that anything in excess of five per day counted as self-destructive behavior, which was by definition untrustworthy). There was a line of maybe twenty-five or thirty people behind the rope to the right of the door, but she wasn’t standing in it. She was slouched against a lamppost, her head down, smoking, as if she had no intention of going inside. “Thank God,” she said when she saw me coming up to her, and I thought I should hug her or pat her back or something but her body language said no, so I raised my hand, lamely, in a kind of childish wave.

“I forgot my phone,” she said, looking distressed behind the beating fringe of her eyelashes. “I must have left it on the table when I went out the door, because, I mean, I was doing my makeup, and then I changed my outfit like three times because I wanted to look nice for you. You like it?” She twirled round so I could admire her, before casually dropping the cigarette to the sidewalk and grinding it under the toe of one of her pink suede kitten-heel mules. Which, if they were watching—and they were always watching—could have constituted littering. Which made me even more nervous than I already was, so I went down on one knee to retrieve the butt and tuck it into my jacket pocket for lack of anything better to do with it.

“Okay,” I said, smiling, “you ready to do a little stanky leg in there?”

She looked at me, puzzled. “What?”

“Dance. I mean, that’s what we’re here for, right? At a dance club? A little nae-nae? Harlem shake? Wapoo?”

Her face fell. “We have to wait in line, because, like I told you—I forgot my phone? And you’re like, what, a six-oh-five?”

“Six fifteen. Didn’t I tell you I’ve been volunteering at the Bosco Roy Oncology Center, and that’s been pushing my score up? And within three months the jaywalking thing’s going to expire and for sure I’ll see an uptick there, plus—”

At that moment, a couple dressed like they’d just stepped out of an AliExpress store glided up to the doorman, who instantly pulled back the rope for them. I only caught a glimpse of them as they went by, but both were wearing score badges, and though I couldn’t tell exactly what shade they were displaying, it was blue, definitely blue.

“Yeah,” she said, after turning her head to watch them pass through the brassy double doors in a burst of light and a quick pulse of intoxicating music, “but we’re shit out of luck now, aren’t we?”

I didn’t want to point out that she was the one who’d left her phone at home, because that would have spoiled things, and besides which, I didn’t mind waiting on line—waiting on line was socially positive, the very foundation of cooperation and selflessness. I didn’t like the phrase she’d used either, not that I didn’t curse sometimes myself, but it was different for a girl, or at least in my limited experience of girls, who always did what was right and unfailingly garnered points. I told her I didn’t mind waiting if she didn’t, and actually things turned out fine. We only had to wait for forty-one minutes, and the club was as hot as they come, absolutely destroying us with all the up-to-the-minute songs from z-Tunes and Tencent, and we danced till our legs were like overcooked noodles.

Afterward I asked her up to my apartment, and she said she had to work in the morning. “So do I,” I said, “but just for a snack or something—aren’t you hungry?” I gave her one of Devin’s faces, the one he called the Pleading Hound, all sagging cheeks and bleeding eyes. “After all that dancing, I mean? I could make us, I don’t know—scrambled eggs? You like scrambled eggs?”

I watched her eyes run through a series of calculations, and then she said, “Okay, but only for a minute.”

Actually, neither of us really wanted to bother with food—or another drink; we’d both had enough—so I popped a couple cans of pomelo Zhima Water and we both had a sip, as if to rinse our mouths before the main event, which was intertwining our tongues and groping each other. We did that for ten minutes or so, till I thought I was going to burst. “You want to go in the bedroom?” I whispered.

She sat up suddenly, looking around her as if she didn’t know where she was. After she’d had a moment to gather herself, she said, “You know, I like you. I really do. And your lips—I love your lips, they’re so kissable, like big stuffed pillows—but to be honest, I can’t really see myself getting serious with anybody under, say, seven hundred?” She smiled. “Minimum.”

A month went by. We went out a couple of times, maybe three or four, I don’t know, but I made a point of calling her almost every day just to hear her voice and chat about games and music and the comings and goings of various celebrities, especially our leader’s teenage twins, Zora and Zofar, who were constantly in the news doing socially positive things like feeding the giraffes at the zoo or cutting the ribbon at the new robotics factory out on Bosco Roy Boulevard. Jewel always seemed happy to hear from me, and when we went out she was upbeat and affectionate—not as affectionate maybe as I’d want her to be, but I was persistent. As our leader says, “Persistence is the superhighway to achieving long-term goals,” and my volunteer work at the oncology center—and the fact that I’d taken my grandmother in for her treatments at the Human Performance Hub three times in a single week—was gradually improving my score. And it didn’t hurt that in the absence of Devin, who just seemed to have vanished (and no, I didn’t try to call or text him, for obvious reasons), I’d begun cultivating two friends at work who maybe weren’t as simpatico as he was, but whose scores were bound to elevate my own. Was I sucking up? Yes. Sure. Of course I was. Really, was there an alternative?

And then, just as things were improving for me, Devin showed up out of nowhere. I’d just sat down at the console with a beer and a bowl of kung pao chicken when the buzzer sounded and there he was, looking pathetic and giving me his done-and-done face to underscore what his body language was already telling me. He looked as if he hadn’t showered in a week. And his Mavericks jersey was so faded you couldn’t even tell it was blue anymore.

I didn’t exactly block the door, but I didn’t move out of the way either.

He said, “Hey,” and I said “Hey” in return. And then—we hadn’t moved yet, both of us trying to adjust to this new reality interposed between us—I said, “Did anybody see you coming up here?”

“Are you shitting me? In a country of five hundred million surveillance cameras? Like the ones at either end of the hallway we’re standing in and that pinhole lens in the doorframe?” He stamped his foot for emphasis, and I saw that his Nike Hyperdunks, which used to be his pride, were filthy and abraded. “For shit’s sake,” he said, “aren’t you going to let me in?”

Suddenly I felt ashamed of myself. He was my best friend, or had been. “You want a beer?” I asked, pulling the door open.

So we had a beer and I microwaved a bowl of kung pao for him and we just started playing WraithQuest till we lost all track of time and space. It was half past ten by the time I got up and started putting things away. He was still working the gamepad, wasting wraiths and dire wolves and stockpiling weapons. At that point I started rattling the plates in the sink in a suggestive way, and he set down the gamepad and glanced up at me. “You know, I was just wondering . . .”

“What?”

“Is it okay if I spend the night?”

He lived two stops away, ten minutes or less on AliRail. “What are you talking about—why not just catch the train? I mean, I’ve got work in the morning . . .”

That was when I found out how low he’d sunk. He’d lost his job and then his apartment, and for the past two weeks he’d been living with his mother out in the ass-end of the suburbs, which was hard enough in itself, but just that morning she’d told him he had to leave. “You know what a shopper she is,” he said.

“Grade A, Number One, shop till you drop. And she does love her discounts and the VIP sales and the end-of-the-year plus-point cruises. She told me she loved me, for what it’s worth, and she promised to advance me fifteen hundred at the end of the month, but right now I just need a break, you hear what I’m saying?”

I heard him, but I was already shaking my head.

The next night, I took Jewel out again, this time to a restaurant that rated four stars on the WeDine app. I had General Tso’s Chicken, sweet and chewy, a dish I’d loved since I was a kid, and she ordered two appetizers and the Angry Lobster (a two-pounder coated with spicy Szechuan chilies and fried garlic and sprinkled all over with black-bean dust). We shared a bottle of French wine the waiter recommended, and when I asked how her lobster was she plucked up a dripping morsel and held it out to me on the tip of her interlaced chopsticks, which was nice. I looked into her eyes as she watched me eat and swallow and then frantically drain my water glass—it was that hot. Her laugh was musical and friendly, though not without a hint of one-upmanship. “Too much for you, big boy?” she asked, then laughed again.

It wasn’t until we got back to my place that she realized she’d left her purse at the restaurant. Though I was on tenterhooks to see what would come next, what with my SCS climbing and the way the lobster had set her eyes afire, I volunteered to run back to the restaurant and reclaim it for her. It was eight long blocks, and when I said I’d run I wasn’t speaking metaphorically. The girl at the hostess stand had the purse right there—a little black beaded thing hardly bigger than a z-Phone—and I was back out the door before it even had a chance to ease itself shut. By this point my jacket was sweated through, and though I’m in fair-to-average shape, I had to slow to a brisk walk on the way back, which was what gave me the time to contemplate what I was doing—or to contemplate just what it was I had in my hand, that is. Her purse. Jewel’s purse. Which contained the only object anybody really needed in this society: her phone. It came to me then that she’d never displayed it for me, though she must have seen mine half a dozen times. Was it trustworthy of me to stop under the big Zhima Credit display across the street from Sesame Appliances and look through her phone? Snoop, that is?

It was an inert slab, black and faceless, but all it took to bring it to life was a single on-off switch. (No need of a code—codes were things of the past, when breaches of trust were as common as flies piling up on a windowsill during the first autumn cold snap; these days there’s no reason for anybody to hide anything.) I turned it on, and if by this point you might have guessed what’s coming, I tell you, I was stunned. At first, when they were still ironing out the kinks in the system, your SCS was upgraded or downgraded weekly, but now it happened in real time, minute to minute, day by day, so there was no denying or excusing the bright citrusy orange of that display and the harsh black numerals fixed right there in the dead center of it: 515.

There was a scene at the apartment. I handed her the purse and watched her eyes enlarge when she realized from the weight of it that something was missing—and it wasn’t her compact either. She didn’t look ashamed, only angry. “All right,” she demanded, “hand it over.”

“Deceit,” I said, quoting our leader, “is the ice pick in the kidney of trust.”

From next door, through the too-thin wall that separated my apartment from my neighbor’s, came the shush-shush-shush of the magneto guns in the latest iteration of StarLoper I was dying to purchase when I got my paycheck at the end of the month.

“I was going to tell you,” she said, switching to penitent mode.

“Yeah, right. What were you waiting for—till my score dropped to like five hundred? Do you know how . . . how rude that is?”

She took the phone from me and zipped it back in her purse as if it were going to infect the whole room, the whole building, but it was already too late for that.

“If it means anything, it was unintentional,” she said, her lashes congested with droplets of liquid that might have been tears, that were tears, though I didn’t believe them. “So my mom got sick,” she said, as if everybody in the country should have known about it. “And because she was accused of a speech crime back in her student days, way before the SCS came along to elevate us all, she ranks as a Grade D citizen, which meant she couldn’t get proper treatment—it was cancer, cancer of the colon?—and we all pitched in, my brother and sister and I, to nurse her and try to pay for all the tests and her operation . . . In the end, I had to drop out of school and go to work, and I wound up defaulting on my student loans, okay? But my mom’s better and I’m paying down my debt, and I tell you Zhima Bank’s just merciless—”

I was no longer listening. It was an impossible situation. Not only had she deceived me—and been haughty about it too, as if she were doing me a favor by letting me pay for her Angry Lobster and her mimosas, and she was a drinker too, let me tell you, and a smoker on top of it—but just knowing her, just having her there in my apartment when the security cameras had watched the way we’d snuggled when I turned the key in the door half an hour ago, put me at risk.

I gave her one of Devin’s faces, the one he called the Shroud, and pointed at the door. “You know the way out,” I said. 

It took me a long while to recover—over a year, actually—but at least I knew why my score had been so slow to rise even after the slate had been wiped clean on my second jaywalking offense. I worked hard to be trustworthy, doubling up on my hours at the oncology center and joining the Campaign for a Trash-Free City, which was sponsored by Zhima Credit itself. Most important, I was careful about who my friends were—once burned, you know? For the last two months I’ve been dating a 750—a legitimate 750, who wears her score badge pinned at the neckline of her blouse and isn’t shy about it either—and if she isn’t absolutely as attractive as Jewel, she has plenty to offer, and I’ve been thinking about surprising her with an engagement ring, though I haven’t quite got around to going to the jewelry store yet. But I will. Soon. That’s a promise. Meanwhile, my two friends at work—they’re both 700s and both named Bosco, after our leader, which is a plus, and why hadn’t my parents thought of that?—have become fixtures in my life, especially after my score topped the magic 700 plateau and they didn’t have to worry about me anymore. And give them credit here, because they saw something in me even when I was down. That’s loyalty, and you can’t really put a number on that.

__________________________________

From I Walk Between the Raindrops by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Copyright 2022, T.Coraghessan Boyle. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint on HarperCollins.




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