South BendThe first thing they did was show their tits. The three of them sat on the edge of the bed facing the camera, took off their shirts, and one by one, removed their bras. Robin had almost nothing to show but she did it anyway, paying more attention to the looks she got from Katia and Amy than to the game itself. If you want to survive in South Bend, she'd heard the girls say once, you have to make friends with the strong.
The animal's camera was installed behind its eyes, and sometimes it spun around on the three wheels hidden in its base, moving forward or backward. Someone was controlling the creature from somewhere else, and they didn't know who it was. The animal looked like a simple and artless plush panda bear, though really it was more similar to a football with one end sliced off so it could stand upright. Whoever was on the other side of the camera was trying to follow them without missing a thing, so Amy picked up the panda and put it on a chair so it would be right at the height of their tits. The gadget was Robin's, but everything Robin had was also Katia's and Amy's: that was the blood pact they had made on Friday, the pact that would join them together for the rest of their lives. And now they each had to do their own little show, so they got dressed again.
Amy put the animal back on the floor, picked up the bucket she'd brought from the kitchen, and placed it upside down over the panda. The bucket moved nervously, blindly, around the room. It collided with notebooks, shoes, and clothing strewn on the floor, which seemed to make it grow more desperate. Amy started to pant and let out excited moans, and the bucket stopped moving. Katia joined in the game, and they acted out a long and profound simultaneous orgasm.
"That doesn't count as your show," Amy warned Katia as soon as they managed to stop laughing.
"Of course not," said Katia, and she darted out of the room. "Get ready!" she cried as she ran down the hall.
Robin didn't usually feel all that comfortable with these games, though she admired Katia's and Amy's nerve, and the way they talked to boys, and how they managed to keep their hair always smelling good and their nails perfectly painted. When the games crossed certain lines, Robin wondered if they might not be testing her. She'd been the last one to join the "club," as they called themselves, and she tried hard to be worthy.
Katia returned to the room with her backpack. She sat down in front of the bucket and freed the panda.
"Pay attention," she said, looking at the camera, and the bear's eyes followed her.
Robin wondered if it could understand them. It seemed to hear them perfectly well, and they were speaking English, which is what everyone speaks. Maybe speaking English was the only good thing about having been born in a city as terribly boring as South Bend.
Katia opened her backpack, took out her yearbook, and looked for the class photo. Amy clapped and shouted:
"You brought the little whore? You're gonna show him?"
Katia nodded. She flipped the pages eagerly, the tip of her tongue poking out between her lips. When she found the girl she was looking for, she opened the album wide and held the photo in front of the bear. Robin peered over the book to see. It was Susan, the weird girl from her biology class that the club bullied for fun.
"They call her Big Ass," said Katia. She pursed her lips a couple of times, the way she did whenever she was about to do some high-level mischief, which was what being a member of the club demanded. "I'm going to show you how to make some free money with her," Katia told the camera. "Robin, darling, could you hold the book while I show the gentleman his job?"
Robin went over and held the book, unsure. Amy looked on curiously; she didn't know Katia's plan either. Katia scrolled through her phone until she found a video, and then she held the screen up in front of the bear's eyes. In the video, Susan lowered her stockings and underpants. It seemed to be filmed from the floor of the school bathroom, inside a stall; maybe the camera had been set up between the trash can and the wall. They heard some farts, and the three of them rolled with laughter, and they cried out in pleasure when, before flushing, Susan stood looking down at her own shit.
"This chick is loaded, my dear," said Katia. "Half for you and the other half for us. It's just that the club can't blackmail her again, the teachers already have their eyes on us."
Robin didn't know what they were talking about, but it wasn't the first time the club hadn't included her in its most illegal activities. Soon Katia's show would be over and it would be her turn, and she hadn't thought of anything. Her hands were sweating. Katia took out her notebook and a pen and wrote down some information.
"Here's Big Ass's full name, phone number, e-mail, and mailing address," she said as she held up the notebook alongside the photo.
"And just how is our little guy going to get us our share of the money?" Amy asked Katia, winking at the camera and the presumed man behind it. Katia hesitated. "We don't know who the hell he is," said Amy. "That's why we showed him our tits, right?
Katia looked at Robin, as if asking her for help. It was in those brief moments that they counted on her, when Katia and Amy reached the heights of their individual rapaciousness and went to war with each other.
"How is the gentleman going to give us his e-mail, huh?" Amy went on, mocking Katia's plan.
"I know how," said Robin.
They both looked at her in surprise.
This would be her show, she thought, this was how she would emerge unscathed from the situation. The panda also turned toward her, trying to follow what was happening. Robin put the book down, went to her wardrobe, and opened a few drawers. She came back with a Ouija board that she opened and set down on the floor.
"Get on," she said to the animal.
And the bear did. The three plastic wheels on its base easily maneuvered onto the cardboard; it moved across the length of the alphabet, as if investigating. Though its body took up more than one letter at a time, soon enough they understood which one it was pointing at, hidden between its wheels. The bear settled in under the arch of the alphabet and waited. It apparently knew exactly how to use a Ouija board. Robin wondered what she would do when the other girls left and she was alone again with this bear, now that she'd shown it her tits and had taught it a way to communicate with her.
"Awesome," said Amy.
And Robin's mouth twisted into a smile.
"Which of the three of us do you think has the best tits?" asked Katia.
The bear moved quickly over the board's letters.
Katia smiled proudly, clearly aware it was true.
How had she not thought of the Ouija board trick sooner? Robin wondered. She'd had the bear in her room for over a week, rolling around aimlessly. She could have talked calmly with him; maybe he was someone special, a boy she could have fallen in love with, and now she was ruining everything by letting Katia and Amy take over.
"Do you accept the deal with Big Ass?" asked Katia, showing him the photo of Susan once more.
The bear moved, started to write again.
Robin frowned. She felt hurt, although maybe the bear's insult spoke well of him: she knew what they were doing wasn't right. Katia and Amy looked at each other and smiled proudly, stuck their tongues out at the bear.
"How crude," said Amy. "Let's see, what else does the gentleman have to say to us?"
"Yeah, what else are we, my little dildo?" Katia egged him on, blowing him sensual kisses with her hand. "What else would you like us to be?"
They had to concentrate to follow the words.
The three of them looked at one another.
Amy and Katia looked at each other a few seconds and burst out laughing. Robin was clutching her shirt, squeezing hard, struggling to force a smile.
"And who exactly is going to pay you, huh?" Amy asked, and pretended to be about to lift up her shirt again.
For the first time, Amy and Katia got serious. Robin couldn't decide whose side she should take; maybe her panda bear was a vigilante.
"You can send them to whoever you want," said Amy. "We have the best tits in the city. Nothing to be ashamed of."
Robin knew that didn't include her. Amy and Katia high-fived. Then the bear started to dance over the board, writing nonstop, spelling words that Robin could barely manage to read.
It took concentration to follow letter by letter, but they couldn't look away.
Amy and Katia were watching the bear's dance in fascination, patient as they waited for each new humiliation.
Amy and Katia looked at each other. Then they looked at Robin, and they weren't smiling now.
The bear went on writing, but Amy and Katia stopped reading. They got up, gathered their things, and stormed out, slamming the door.
Trembling, while the bear kept moving over the board, Robin tried to figure out how the hell to turn the thing off. It didn't have a switch-she'd already noticed that-and in her desperation she couldn't find any other solution. She picked it up and tried to open the base with the point of a pair of scissors. The bear tried to get away by spinning its wheels, but it was helpless. Robin couldn't find any crack to pry open, so she returned the bear to the floor and it went straight back to the board. Robin kicked it off. The bear squealed and she cried out-she didn't know it could make noise. She picked up the board and threw it across the room. She turned the key to lock her bedroom door and went back to chase the panda with the bucket as if she were trying to trap a giant spider. She managed to catch it and sat on the bucket, staying there a moment clutching the sides, holding her breath every time the bear hit against the plastic and trying hard not to cry.
When her mother called her to dinner, she shouted down that she wasn't feeling good and wanted to go to bed without eating. She picked up the big wooden trunk where she stored her notes and textbooks and put it on top of the bucket, fully immobilizing it. Someone had told her that if you couldn't break the thing, the only way to turn it off was to wait for its battery to run out. So she hugged her pillow and sat on her bed to wait. Trapped under the bucket, the bear went on squealing for hours, banging against the plastic like a giant hornet, until, near dawn, the room was left in complete silence.
A text box appeared on the screen. It demanded a serial number, and Emilia sighed and shifted in her wicker chair. Those kinds of requirements were what most drove her to desperation. At least her son wasn't there, silently timing her as she searched for her glasses so she could reread the instructions. Sitting at the desk in the hallway, she straightened up in the chair to relieve her back pain. She breathed in deeply, exhaled, and, double-checking each number, entered the code on the card. She knew her son didn't have time for any nonsense, and even so she imagined him spying on her from some camera hidden in the corner, suffering in his Hong Kong office at the sight of her inefficiency, just as her husband would have suffered if he were still alive.
After selling the last gift her son had sent her, Emilia had paid the apartment's overdue bills. She didn't understand much about watches or designer handbags or sneakers, but she'd lived long enough to know that anything wrapped in more than two types of cellophane, packaged in felt boxes, and requiring a signature and ID on delivery was worth enough to pay a retiree's debts; it also made it very clear how little a son knew about his mother.
They'd taken her prodigy son from her as soon as the boy turned nineteen, seducing him with obscene salaries and whisking him off to far-flung cities. Now he was never coming back to her, and Emilia still hadn't decided whom to blame.
The screen started blinking again: Serial number accepted. Her computer wasn't the latest model, but it was good enough for her. The second message said Kentuki connection established, and right away a new program opened. Emilia frowned-what good were these kinds of messages, indecipherable to her? They exasperated her, and they were almost always related to the contraptions her son sent her. Why waste time trying to understand gadgets she would never use again? She wondered this every time. She looked at the clock. It was already almost six. Her boy would surely call to ask what she thought of the gift, so she made one last effort to focus. On the screen the program was now showing a keyboard with controls, like the one on a naval-battle game she used to play on her son's phone, before those people from Hong Kong took him away. Above the keyboard, the program was proposing the action Wake up. She selected it. A video took up most of the screen and the control keyboard was summarized at the sides, simplified in little icons. In the video, Emilia saw the kitchen of a house. She wondered if this could be her son's apartment, though it wasn't his style, and the boy would never let the place get so messy or cram it so full of stuff. There were magazines on the table under some beer bottles, mugs, and dirty plates. Farther back, the kitchen opened onto a small living room that was in more or less the same condition.
There was a soft murmuring sound, like a humming, and Emilia leaned closer to the screen to try to understand. Her speakers were old and fuzzy. The sound repeated and she discovered that it was actually a feminine voice: Someone was talking to her in another language and she didn't understand a word. Emilia could follow English-if it was spoken slowly-but this didn't sound anything like English. Then someone appeared on-screen, a girl whose blond hair was wet. The girl spoke again, and the program asked in another text box if it should activate the translator. Emilia accepted, selected Spanish for her language, and now when the girl spoke there were subtitles on the screen.