4940 words, short story
Forward Momentum and a Parallel Toss
On the marching band field, everything echoes of Alex. Lacey’s students spread across the sideline and cue their robots, and Lacey sees herself as a teenager in a giant sweatshirt, Alex next to her, looks at the bots and remembers Alex’s head on hers when she curled up around him in the last row of the bus, talking through choreography. But those are the wrong kinds of memories to have of Alex, so Lacey swallows down nostalgia and focuses on the field, looking for tiny errors to focus on at the next practice. They’re going to win regionals today, but state will be harder.
The robots roll onto the field, music swelling from speakers, each robot an individual instrument, and she looks for Edsel and Amber, each on one end of the line of students, wearing their blue cocaptain armbands, holding the manual override controls. To the left of Amber is Bruin, in his yellow and green JM sweatshirt and baseball cap, shoulders straight, and Lacey sees Alex there too, the unfortunate heart of the problem she was never able to solve.
She sits in the stands, unusual for a coach, but everyone has their whims, and watches her students absolutely steamroll over the competition. Their bass drums have real arms and drums instead of speakers, and twelve of their robots can do a parallel toss, their long, oddly-jointed arms making precise work of the back-to-front transition and the proud whirl of color overhead. The other teams have no chance.
They’ll have to stay for the exhibition performance now, which Lacey resents despite herself, but the exhibition is all the kids—she doesn’t even know what its final form looks like—so she sneaks off to get some ice cream while they’re preparing for it.
As she goes to pay, a man in a long-sleeved JM shirt puts his sundae next to hers and says he’s paying, and Lacey turns to argue, but then she sees it’s Alex.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she asks, when they’re safely in a deserted high school hallway, invisible to the teams scurrying around to pack up and prepare for the awards and exhibition. Her ice cream is melting into its biodegradable bowl.
“I volunteered to be a JM recruiter for regionals,” he says. “Hoped to catch you and thought the ice cream stand was my surest bet.” His grin unfurls like an open secret, and for a second Lacey doesn’t begrudge him being right.
But mostly seeing him just makes her sad. “What do you want, Alex?”
And just like that the grin is gone. “I wanted to warn you to settle down a little,” he says, sticking his thumb through a belt loop, looking anywhere but at her. “JM sales in Madrid”—he winks—“comma Illinois, have been going down since you came back and started coaching the band, and now some people are trying to get out of their contracts early. I don’t want to have to do any digging into the reason why, but you understand I have my suspicions.” He says “Madrid” like a local, the A pronounced long and flat as in apple.
“JM’s a big company. I don’t think a few counties buying less equipment is going to wreck your profit margins.”
Alex chews on his lip, and Lacey reads it all on his face. JM’s weaker than it looks. All the sales matter to them right now.
“Competition?” She offers after a moment. “Trouble in corporate paradise?”
Alex scowls and avoids the question. “Everyone in Madrid is growing vegetables, Lacey. And you and I both know people aren’t planting acres of carrots and beets by hand.”
She shrugs. “They could be. I don’t know much about planting.” A lie. She’s learned a lot the last few years. “Honestly, Alex, ‘the band’ is literally just twenty-some teenagers looking to practice coding and make robots do funny stuff with their metal limbs. We’re no threat.”
“All I’m saying is, it would look a lot better if some of the kids from the band were a little more interested in JM contracts. It’s good money. And it would help if the sales numbers in the area went up.”
“And if they don’t?”
There are bags under Alex’s eyes and lines on his forehead. He exudes weariness. When he speaks, it’s with a sadness that makes Lacey think of a seed, buried deep in dark blocks of soil, of fingers beyond its control pressing it into place.
“Then JM’s going to investigate, and they’re going to find something, and they’re going to prosecute the hell out of it.” He sighs. “They’ve given you a folder, a number. You’re a project now. We used to be friends, Lace. I don’t want to see you in jail.”
She maneuvers around the “used to” in her head, the weighty factuality of it, the pang it gives her. A little corner of her mind compares it to the sound of her nickname from his mouth.
Alex hands her a business card. “Call me if you have any questions.”
“It was good of you to let me know,” she says.
Lacey thinks through it on the bus home. Behind her, two dozen of her high school students are huddled up against each other, talking and laughing and sleeping on each other’s shoulders. These are the coziest memories of her own time in robotics marching band a decade ago, sharing a seat with Alex, watching old Drum Corps videos they’d saved on their tablets, trying to come up with new ideas, or just giggling at ridiculous old jokes, gleeful and easily amused with exhaustion.
Lacey’s always known this was going to happen. She didn’t think she’d hear it from Alex himself, but she knew. JM has tech, and JM has plenty of connections with the cops, in Illinois and all over, and JM has a small army of lawyers. That’s why her notes and drawings are all in neatly organized paper notebooks, her files with scanned copies encrypted and secured under a fake name online, why she insists people call her if they have questions about their robots instead of emailing. But that could only get her so far.
She could slow things down for a while. Or she could leave. It’s what she’s always planned on doing, eventually. Edsel and Amber (and Schuyler and probably Rose and maybe Mason) know enough to help keep people’s machines in order, and they’re smart and eager and they get why it’s important. At least, she thinks they do. They’re good kids, but that’s a lot to put on them. Too much.
If she leaves, Madrid will slip in JM’s priorities. Maybe that’s safer for everyone.
But. JM’s weak at the moment. She can dig into it later—could be some expansion to the west coast has them overextended, or some investments abroad—but she should be using it. She needs to speed up, not slow down.
And that was always the fundamental difference between Alex and her, wasn’t it. It was a stupid risk to steal the backup robots and reprogram and reoutfit them to do her chores on the farm in high school, and it was an even bigger one to go to college. For Alex, going to work for JM was safe, and since his parents were still tens of thousands of dollars in debt on their combine, the employee assistance was just a bonus.
Lacey left but swore she’d come back, for Madrid, for Alex, for every problem she didn’t know how to solve yet. She made friends in college, the kind she could come back to, the kind who traded ideas with her late at night and didn’t back down from them in the morning, but she was always going to leave them.
It’s dark outside, but the bus sways on, and Lacey can tell they’re nearing Madrid because the fields aren’t tagged with illuminated IP labels anymore, and solar houses with herbs and vegetables loom like strange translucent creatures on the edge of her vision. It’s strange, she thinks, that the more she does, the closer she gets, the less Madrid looks like the town she grew up in, the town she missed so much.
When Lacey returned to Madrid three years after college, she came with enough equipment from her dead start-up to fill two barns. By then, Alex was long gone, on the other side of a divide Lacey didn’t know how to start crossing.
But Lacey wants him back, and she wants what’s best for her town, and she knows that now’s the time. She has to make her play.
Lacey’s team has three weeks until state. Thousands of people will come to watch the winning teams perform, to mill around the JM campus and stadium, to buy from food trucks and watch seed shows. For high schoolers, there’s the job fair. JM will continue their streak, snapping up the most promising candidates for their four-year training rotations and overpaid engineering jobs that leave workers trapped up in NDAs and noncompetes and too much information to be useful somehow, overselling DRM-locked equipment that only works on their seeds. Not that Lacey’s biased.
She is working hard, as are her students. From 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., the band’s machines are all theirs, and Lacey takes advantage of this by adding early morning practices to after-school time. Her students show up yawning, with coffee and tea in thermoses that they pretend to feed to their machines. Marching robots are roughly composed of a box on wheels, speakers, and some combination of brightly painted limbs, but most students draw marker faces with angry eyebrows or goofy smiles on the upper box. Schuyler and Mason work on balance and flexibility on the wheels and, after hours of hard work, achieve the first robot wheelie south of I-80. With this kind of talent and dedication, Lacey thinks they can’t lose.
Each kid has three robots under their control, sometimes four or five for the upperclassmen. With their machines, it’s not so much a matter of precision—that’s the norm—but of cohesion and flair. They got third at state last year, but Lacey is counting on winning this year. Her robots’ fake wrists can turn and loop; their fingers can grab with varying degrees of pressure, and this makes them the best color guard at state—in any division.
Those fake wrists and dexterous fingers make them useful for moving soil blocks, too, for prodding seeds into little wells and packing soil down on top. They keep track of watering schedules as well as musical scores—better, really—and the tilling attachments that fit on the trumpet section come in handy in late spring. And that’s why, when her students go home after practice every day, most of them take a machine with them, rolling alongside their bikes or pressed, compact, in the back of their cars. After they leave, Lacey puts the rest in her pickup and takes them to a few drop-off spots: the corner between Lillian Wang’s greenhouses and Salem Lester’s sweet corn patch, surrounded by solar fence because of the damned raccoons, the park in the town center, the gravel lot between Tracy King’s cow field and Kevin Chanhira’s apricot and apple orchard.
Between 6:00 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., people can do whatever they want with the marching machines, as long as they’ve talked to Lacey first and have them charged by the end. She teaches a Saturday afternoon class on weekends they’re not practicing, going over the basics of what machines are and aren’t capable of, how they’re fixed, what instructions they need, and how they use the information.
The other teams at state won’t have been sharing machines with anyone, let alone farms, but Lacey thinks it’s an advantage. Over the past four years she’s been coaching the band, she’s found that what’s good for the plants is usually good for the band too.
Lacey’s building more machines, still, with her own money and the parts from the barns. She has diagrams for dozens more. She was planning on starting to sell them at cost this summer, instructions and diagrams included. Now she’ll have to get it all set up within weeks.
She doesn’t know how much of a difference it’ll make. Even though the JM office in Madrid has downsized, the ones a couple counties over are doing just fine. Everyone there is still growing corn and soybeans like their parents, locked in debt cycles they ignore with Midwestern stoicism.
Lacey has a JM tractor of her own in the machine shed behind the barn. It’s an old model, inherited, but it can already do a lot more than plant patented corn and soybeans.
Lacey comes into morning practice a little later than usual one morning, swearing at herself for leaving her tea on the kitchen counter. That’s why it takes her a minute to see the row of teenagers crossing their arms at her.
“What’s happening?” she asks, immediately running through a list of emergency scenarios in her head. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re working too hard on this project for state,” Schuyler says, handing Lacey a cup of coffee. “We’re going to help.”
Lacey takes a sip and grimaces at the taste. “That’s very kind,” she says, “but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The five of them present her with their evidence. Notes she left on her desk with formation diagrams, late nights, some code she fed to a marcher and forgot to replace with the standard. Nothing strong enough to get her in trouble, but enough dots for smart kids to connect.
“If you know what this is about,” she says, “you know this could be dangerous. You’ll lose any chance of a job with JM. They may be able to blacklist you.” She swallows. “Full disclosure, they might try to have me arrested. They might succeed.”
“We’ll be okay,” Edsel says, poised as always. “We’ll mostly focus on the exhibition. Stick to the legal stuff where we can.”
Lacey fidgets. “My plan isn’t perfect. It’s barely even formed. Is that really worth risking your futures over?”
Amber gestures at the workroom, and she seems to encompass everything—the wind kites on the roof, the graying walls, the smallness of it all. “What futures, really? Most of us are going to stay here after we graduate and farm or raise animals. The robots are our best bet. If we don’t do something, if we just keep moving along until someone stops us, we’ll be back in JM’s showrooms, signing away what we don’t even have.”
“And,” Edsel adds. “I read an article about JM being in trouble with a lender because of some faulty investments they made in West Africa. Now’s the best chance we’ve got.”
“It’s not fair that any of this should be on you,” she says.
Amber shrugs. “Life’s not fair. JM’s business model isn’t fair. We should still try.”
It seems too easy to say it like that, but maybe she’s right. Lacey could use the help, and they’re offering. They’ve been paying more attention than she realized. It’s their town too. “Okay,” Lacey says. “You want to use the exhibition if we win?”
They all nod.
“Do you have a plan for it?”
Schuyler grins. “My understanding is that we have to make the biggest, most attention-grabbing scene we can and then throw information at them until they can’t ignore it.” He throws an arm around Mason. “Lemme tell you, Ms. Clemmens, Mason and I are great at making a scene.”
Mason nods. “Our genuine specialty.”
That’s at least worth a smile. “They could find a way to wave it away,” she offers, a last feeble attempt.
“Not if we make it big enough!”
“No buts,” Rose says. She’s always been quiet, but she looks Lacey in the eye. “We want to help.” She shrugs, knowing her point is won. “And your odds are better if we do.”
“This is the most irresponsible thing I have ever done,” Lacey says, and then she starts explaining how they’re going to do it.
Lacey is too impulsive for her own good and too stubborn by far. Everyone’s always said it. This must be why she calls Alex the Saturday morning a week before state. They’re halfway through a mark-by-mark run-through, and the kids have gone inside to get water and battery packs and more jar lids, and she’s working on an actuator that’s been rolling its triple twist too quickly.
Lacey pauses to check the instructions, in a picture on her phone, and the picture of Alex’s business card is right next to it, his number auto-scanned into her contacts. She presses the linked number and hits “call” before she can lose her nerve.
“Hi, Lacey,” Alex’s voice sounds almost warm on the phone.
She closes her eyes. “You shouldn’t know what my phone number is.”
“Ah, well. What can I help you with?”
Lacey swallows. His calls—and hers, if she’s being honest—are probably being recorded. “It was kind of you to talk to me when we ran into each other a few weeks ago. I wanted to return the favor.”
“Alex,” Lacey says his name like an anchor, lets it sink into the silence. “Is this what you really want? To work for JM forever? Because, listen. I’m going to . . . keep going with this. With what we discussed.” She pauses, considering. “I want you to help me. Help me with it, help me get away with it, whatever.”
She hears his hissed intake of breath.
“You shouldn’t have told me that.”
“I trust you,” she says. “I think you’re better than this.” It’s mostly true.
“I’ll see you on Saturday, Lace.”
Lacey and her five students work beyond the extra hours the whole team is already putting in. She orders them pizza three nights in a row, and then, beset by guilt, brings in salads and containers of radishes, turnips, and carrots from her greenhouse, most of which are politely ignored.
Edsel and Amber are in charge of the extra robots, the ones that don’t have to meet the competition specifications because they aren’t for the competition. Once they finish the choreography, Schuyler and Mason work on the website, researching the environmental effects of monocultures and herbicide-resistant genetics and arguing over how they’re going to format their citations. Lacey stops what she’s doing sometimes to give them a monologue about the ethics of IP law, which they nod at and ignore because they already wrote that whole page and she’s not telling them anything they don’t already know.
Lacey grins to herself sometimes on these late nights, thinking about how much these kids care, watching them do the work. The glow of computer screens and flat overhead lighting lights up their space in the shop, and Lacey’s water heater is bubbling in the background, the smell of tea and coffee mixing with motor oil. They don’t talk much, hunched over their computers or their robots, but they’re connected all the same.
Rose works on the pamphlet, the scan codes for the website, the graphics. She goes outside one evening and throws paper around in the wind, different shapes and sizes, different weights. Somehow this turns into a spreadsheet she and Cass are working on, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of their paper options, and then Cass is there too on the nights when she doesn’t have to take care of the animals, shrugging herself around Rose like a favorite cardigan.
They leave the diagrams for Lacey to fret over. She brings parts into the shop to take pictures of on the grimy concrete floor and considers sketching them out instead. She stares at the JM logo, carefully stamped on each individual part, and thinks about how illegal it all is.
And that’s the other side of the work they’re doing, the fear. When she’s getting in the middle of Schuyler and Mason’s argument about citation styles or timing the seconds it takes two pieces of confetti to fall from equal heights for Rose, it hits her hard, like hands around her rib cage, around her throat. These kids are kids. She’s doing the diagrams, she’s directing them, she’s careful that they not put anything in writing or online. They probably won’t go to jail, but the black mark they’re putting on their futures will be all too real, and she won’t be able to protect them, won’t even be around.
But then again, most of them are seniors. Next year, a couple of them might head to college, but most of them are going to be in Madrid, same as ever. Lacey remembers being in high school—in this high school, in this town—all too well. She thinks she’s stuck in parallels sometimes, the past, present, and hoped-for future a constant relay in her head. But she needs to put behind the fond ghosts of the past and work in the moment for the future as she envisions it—a community growing a range of crops, working on the technology together, free of the looming shadow of corporate debt.
That’s what Lacey wants for her students. Even better, they want more for themselves. They’ll protect each other, she knows.
They leave for state at 5:00 a.m., Lacey ushering yawning students into the bus, checking that they have all their tools. They settle into seats quietly, pulling sweatshirts and blankets over themselves. Lacey is wide awake, nearly vibrating with anxiety. She checks the code on her laptop, checks her bag for oil and spare parts. She talks to the bus driver, a formality given the self-driving mechanism, and straightens the cuffs on her sweater. This kind of nervous energy usually dissipates once she’s done what she needs to; today it lingers. Back at her house, her car is packed. Once they’re back in Madrid she’s heading east, the fastest way out of JM’s stronghold. She’ll stay with college friends, pick up the language of start-ups and cities again, keep moving.
So Lacey looks out the window and watches for the first signs of daylight washing over the sky in creeping pastels, watches the sun rise and spread long shadows over the fields. The farther they go, the more corn and soybeans she sees, identifiable by the IP labels on the fences. She starts counting telephone poles.
The nervous energy follows her all day. She takes it to setup and check in, where they take a classroom for their machines and warm them up, but by the time it’s time for them to actually perform, it’s been replaced by a kind of exhausted calm. She watches her students walk up to the judges and bow, a relatively steady line of jeans and dark blue T-shirts, and clear the field. The drum major robot starts, a particular point of pride, and creates its own stand. It bows to the judges and salutes while the rest of the robots take their positions, the color guard rolling different flags to the front beforehand. The drum major’s first finger extends into a long baton, and it starts the performance.
Lacey isn’t entirely present in her body for the performance, just conscious of the press of her fingers on her palms and the pulse of the beat in her mind. Everything happens when it should, the flags slicing across the air like morning sunbeams, the music swelling at the end, the marchers’ feet lined up. She surges up with the rest of the crowd when it ends, clapping and whistling before she’s aware that she’s adding to the din.
When they announce the scores an hour later, she’s not surprised that they’ve won—in their tiny division—but she still cries a little. She gives the kids a few hours of freedom while she and her core students wander back to their classroom and start to set up for the exhibition.
Alex strolls by an hour in, his green and yellow shirt practically glowing. He congratulates the kids and mentions that if they haven’t checked out the career opportunities in the JM showroom, he’s sure they’ll still be open after the exhibition, for the winners. He mentions he met one of their teammates, a nice young man named Bruin, but hasn’t seen anyone else from Madrid.
“Thanks, sir,” Amber says, her brown eyes boring into him like the lasers Lacey has always dreamed of installing on her bots, “but we’re not interested.”
Lacey tenses. Alex pauses, resting his weight on one foot, threading his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans, and takes in what he’s seeing. Lacey and six of her students looking frazzled and working hard on robot arms, angling their screens away from him, hours before the exhibition.
“Alright,” he says. “Good luck to you. Looks like we’re going to have our biggest crowd yet.”
It’s that pose. The lean, the polite conversational deflection. Lacey looks at him, and for a moment she’s fifteen, and she finally has a friend, and he’s funny and doesn’t break Kit Kats before eating them. And she’s eighteen, and he’s moving to Peoria to start his job, and she hugged him before, but now his parents are there, so he extends a hand and tells her to take care of herself. And she’s twenty at a New Year’s Eve party, finally home for a break, and so excited to see Alex that she tells him everything at once—what JM’s doing, the stuff she’s learning about, all the ways she wants to try to fix it—and he smiles at her, too polite, and says something about the weather.
Lacey’s not going to lose the battle and the war. She wants her friend back.
Alex texts her a few minutes later, Don’t do this.
You could come with me.
The exhibition show starts at eight, and as the winners of the smallest division, they go first. Lacey watches the stadium fill, sections full of people in green and yellow baseball caps, sections of farmers taking an evening off to come see the future of agricultural technology and talent.
At 8:07, the stadium lights dim, and field lights flood the pitch. Lacey watches as Schuyler and Rose move from teammate to teammate slowly, unobtrusively, somehow missing Bruin. They’re explaining the new plan for the exhibition.
The drum major enters, sets its stand, bows, and salutes. The color guard flags are red, but some of the other machines have flags too, in yellow and green. As the drum major starts the piece, the marchers with yellow and green flags move smoothly into position, forming the letters J and M. The crowd cheers.
The color guard, red flags waving, move into a tight circle around the JM, then in a diagonal line across it. They begin to slowly rotate around the circle, each marcher raising its red flag to connect in the diagonal as it reaches the crucial point. The music swells; the crowd goes silent. Everyone is leaning in, looking at the field, taking pictures, mouths gaping.
Lacey releases a small marcher next to her in the stands and watches it roll through the crowds and hop up the stairs on plastic feet. From where they’re sitting below, Edsel and Amber and Schuyler will be doing the same. She knows where they’re headed, to four different corners of the stadium, and she waits for a moment, enough to take one long breath. When the music swells again—there—she anticipates before she sees the confetti in the air.
The audience doesn’t know whether to clap, but people do grab at the pieces of paper, waterproof, eighty pounds, and square because that’s what Rose decided. Lacey watches as people frown at the words and the scan code, as they pull out their phones. Some of them take pictures of the diagrams on the back, instructions for a basic field model to be constructed out of parts removable from a locked JM machine.
Lacey’s about to be in a lot of trouble.
But in this moment, she has anonymity. She’s just another person in the stands watching the remains of a monumental mistake. She watches Amber hug Mason as Edsel pumps his fists. They’re giddy with it, what feels like victory. Fear trickles down her throat into her chest. She thinks they’re safe, but she can’t be sure.
There’s an audible hum rising through the crowd now that the music has stopped—of excitement and interest, she hopes. She hopes and hopes that the people in the stands want to look at fields and see opportunity and bright colors in a variety of crops. In the box across the stadium, JM executives are jumping to their feet. One of them is scratching his head. Most of the others are pulling out their phones, gesturing angrily at each other. In this, and in the hum of interest, Lacey snatches at victory.
Lacey’s notebooks have been disseminated. Edsel and Amber know almost everything anyway, and they know how to get in contact with her if necessary. JM can’t destroy everything. A smile pulls at the side of her face, and she lets it unroll into a grin.
To her right, Alex is walking toward her, gently moving people out of his way. He could be coming to let her slip out of his fingers or to run away with her. He could be coming to detain her. She thinks she can hear his footsteps alone amid the din. Perhaps it’s just her heartbeat.
She doesn’t quite want to look at his face. She finds she can’t bear it, at the end, to know whose side he’s on.
AnaMaria Curtis is from the part of Illinois that is very much not Chicago. She's the winner of the 2019 Dell Magazines Award and enjoys starting fights about 19th century British literature and getting distracted by dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @AnaMCurtis.