Chapter I – Jackie
Except for the fiasco in the kitchen, that fateful May morning started off uneventfully.
I got up early to make breakfast. Usually that’s Harry’s job, but he’d had to work late the night before, so I let him sleep in. I went downstairs and dug through the fridge for something to cook. We had eggs and instant pancake mix, but not much else. I groaned. Both of those required cooking skills. I had none. (In fact, I had an F in high school home ec and a talent for burning things.) I was tempted to just toast a few poptarts, but I needed to get Gramma off those things.
I heard Gramma clomping around upstairs. “Jackie!” she shouted. “Where’s my poptart?!”
“We don’t ‘ave any,” I lied.
“Of course we do!” Harry called. “We always ‘ave poptarts!”
“Harry!” I groaned.
I cracked two eggs into a frying pan, dripping some down the front of the stove. Cursing under my breath, I reached down to get a towel and slipped on the puddle of spilled egg. I hauled myself up, swearing out loud, and called, “Tam! Breakfast!” I would take her another ten minutes to get up.
I checked the egg. It looked done, but when I poked it with a fork, it started oozing. I sighed and turned the heat up.
Harry came downstairs in his pajamas and sat at the table. “I promised Gramma a poptart,” he said.
I groaned. “No, no poptarts! We ‘ave ta get her off those things! She’s addicted! Besides, they’re crap.”
“But they taste so good…” Harry said. He got up and poured himself a glass of cranberry juice. “You should put that egg on the gas burner,” he suggested. “It’ll cook faster.” Grumbling about wasting gas on breakfast, I lit the gas burner, put the egg over it and turned the heat up until the flames licked the edge of the pan.
“Tam!” I shouted.
“Coming!” she replied.
I sat down next to Harry. “So,” I said. “Why’d ya ‘ave ta stay late last night?”
“A geyser ate the toolbox,” Harry replied. “An’ my group got blamed for it. So we ‘ad ta work overtime ta pay for it.”
“You ‘ad ta pay for it?” I said incredulously. “You ‘ad ta pay for it?! That’s ridiculous! As if the Stock family couldn’t afford a $20 tool set! They’re all a bunch of greedy, inconsiderate dipsticks who don’t give a damn what they do ta other people as long as they’re getting richer!”
“Ya got that right,” Harry said. “Where’s Tam?”
“Tam!” I shouted.
“Jackie, where’s my poptart?!”
“No poptarts, Gramma!”
Gramma hobbled downstairs in her nightgown. “I want a poptart!” she screeched.
“I hid them,” I lied. “You can ‘ave one if you can find ‘em.” Gramma shuffled off to look.
I turned back to Harry. “So a geyser ate your toolbox?” I said. “Was it a freak eruption?”
“A very predictable eruption, actually,” Harry grumbled. “We were told it’d been plugged.”
“Then it’s totally their fault!” I shouted.
Tam finally appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “Jackie?” she said.
I turned on her. “Don’t ya think it’s wrong ta ‘ave ta pay for something that’s not your fault?” I asked her.
“Jackie?” she said.
“Especially if it’s the fault of the person you’re paying?”
“Because that’s what ‘appened ta Harry. He ‘ad ta work overtime—”
Tam pointed behind me. I turned around.
The egg was on fire! I yelped, grabbed Harry’s cranberry juice and doused the burning egg. The foot-high flames went out, but I took the pan off the burner, just in case.
I held out the burnt egg to Tam and Harry. “An’ this,” I said, “is why I don’t cook.”
Just then, Gramma hobbled into the kitchen. She stared at the pan and screeched, “What ‘ave ya done ta my poptart?!”
I scowled at her. “It’s an egg, actually.”
Gramma shook her head. “Darn genetically modified food,” she grumbled. “Burnin’ so easily. I remember when it was all organic…”
“No, ya don’t,” Harry scoffed. “It’s 2072, Gramma. They ‘ad genetically modified food in the 1990s.”
“2072,” Gramma muttered. “That’s ridiculous. I remember the first moon base they built in 2037, before World
War Three…” She hobbled off.
2072—or 2 PA, as Harry and I like to say. Two years two years from the start of our pre-apocalyptic countdown. It was a little joke Harry had started on his radio program. Since the election in 2070, Harry and I, along with about 99 percent of Provincia’s population, had basically been waiting for the apocalypse. It was slow in coming—we still had a legislation process, so Thrasher wasn’t all-powerful. Yet.
Gramma’s moon base had been the first thing to go—sold to the European Union to make a quick buck. Then NASA was disbanded and space was completely taken over by the private sector. (No wonder there are no Provincian astronauts; no one trusts the corporations!) The EPA went next, and then the FDA (hence the flammable food). Government agencies were dropping like flies—but only the ones Thrasher had labeled “unnecessary.” Our military was the largest it had been in decades, and so were the FBI and the CIA. And on top of that, Thrasher was constantly pestering the UN with “suggestions for the improvement of our fellow nations” (his words exactly—I’m sure the other countries think we’re all idiots), while a great majority of his people were barely getting enough food to eat. But that didn’t bother him—he and his “allies” ate well every night. What a messed up country.
And yes, I and the rest of the Rockwell family are part of that 99 percent. I felt horrible about wasting that egg. Harry and I would have to go without breakfast, and so would Tam. I might be able to spare Gramma a poptart—but that would mean one of us would skip breakfast tomorrow. Maybe Hayley would let me steal a slice of bread, or something. After all, she didn’t have any little sisters to take care of. She lived on her own—contrary to most working families, the Gardners could be rather solitary. Harry and I went with the flow—we were siblings, and we shared a tiny house with Gramma and Tam. Tam was the youngest of the Rockwell siblings at thirteen, nine years younger than me.
Harry grabbed the egg tentatively. The outside was charred to a crisp. He tried to bend it, but it broke in half and started oozing egg goo. Tam looked like she wanted to vomit.
I glanced at the clock. “Tam, you’re late,” I said.
Tam jumped up, grabbing her backpack, but paused by the door. “Where am I goin’?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. “What day is it?”
“Monday,” Harry said.
I nodded. “That’s right. No radio show yesterday. Tam, you’re goin’ ta Riverside.” Tam groaned and trudged
out the door.
On Mondays, Tam went to the Riverside Private School for Gifted Children™. She’s very smart—too smart for Riverside, actually. She should probably be moved up a grade, but because she only goes on Mondays, she isn’t “eligible.” Those private schools have all sorts of stupid rules like that. If it were up to me, Tam would just go to Mrs. Harder’s school all the time—but Thrasher passed a law that requires kids to go to an “official” private school for at least one day a week. So, every Monday, Tam hikes across town to Riverside with the rest of the Monday Crew.
During the remainder of the week, the Monday Crew reports to Bree Harder for school. A former public school teacher (before Thrasher destroyed the education system), Mrs. Harder had transformed the Harder house into a school for tuber children. Mrs. Harder is brilliant—she teaches out of the old textbooks (the ones that actually have the right information in them) and she encourages the kids to have opinions and debates. And Tam loves her—she thinks of Mrs. Harder as a second mom. Best of all, a day at Mrs. Harder’s school only costs a dollar—a day at Riverside costs $25.
Harry sighed and sat down again. “We ‘aven’t ‘ad a good meal since Mom and Dad died,” he remarked.
“Oh, you cook fine,” I said.
Mom and Dad. They had both been industry scientists. Three years ago, they had been out taking rock samples when Vesta, our smaller volcano, started outgassing. They put their gas masks on, but the filters didn’t work properly. Mom and Dad ended up breathing sulfur, and they died of red lung that night.
And the chairman of industry science had left Harry and Tam and Gramma and I to fend for ourselves.
No insurance, no compensation. Not even an apology for sending our parents out with faulty gas masks.
I had been hoping to go to college and study political science. But with Mom and Dad gone, and no one else to take care of Tam and Gramma, I said goodbye to that dream real quickly.
You can see why I’m so anti-riverside.
Tam was devastated when Mom and Dad died. I felt awful—I couldn’t help her; I was gone all day, scouting in the lava tubes. Mrs. Harder, of course, was very helpful. She’s been Tam’s mentor for the past five years. Tam would always go to her when she wanted to talk about Mom and Dad.
Tam would also talk with my friend Curt Gardner. He was so nice to her—he always knew just the right thing to say. And his sister, Hayley, made the best brownies…
Harry tapped my arm, snapping me out of my daydream. “Ya want ta split a poptart?” he asked.
“No,” I sighed. “We should save ‘em for the end of the month.” I got slowly to my feet and tugged Harry up. “Get your work clothes on,” I said. “Let’s get to the studio.”