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“Slippery Slope” by Holly Schofield

Ginna squirmed beneath Carter on the slick autumn leaves. He outweighed her by four or five kilos. The back of her T-shirt began to soak through.

“You lost the game, Ginna. You gotta give me something.” Carter straddled her, arms raised in triumph. She could hardly breathe. Twigs dug into her back.

The other kids, all from her grade five class, crowded around but only little Minh Ho took a cautious step forward. His voice was even higher than usual. “We should calmly disengage, right? That’s what ChildWise says to do when someone bullies you.”

Yeah, right, what did ChildWise know? Like she could “discreetly withdraw” when she was pinned to the ground. Minh Ho always took the social advice stuff so literally.

Carter smirked down at her. Stupid Carter! He should leave everyone alone. Ginna stuck out her tongue.

The gleam in his eye made her realize her mistake.

“Heyyy, good idea, Ginna!” Carter said. He forced her jaw open, scraping her neck with his wrist comp. She tried biting as his grimy fingers reached in but the dentist’s safety features kicked in. A click, an electronic tingle, and the taste of sewer-tainted clay as her tongue, the latest Mochi III, disengaged.

“Yeah!” Carter rose to his feet, tongue held high in his fist. The other kids watched in silence.

Carter yanked out his own tongue, a lesser model, and stuck it in his jeans pocket, then popped Ginna’s tongue in his mouth.

“Nythhh.” He cleared his throat. “Nice.” He waggled the tongue at Ginna as she scrambled up. “I’m gonna enjoy my dinner tonight! Somethin’ for my perma-journal!”

Kick the Can and Hide ‘n Seek with the neighborhood kids had rocked until Carter had moved in down the street. Since then, the suburban ravine, their place, hadn’t felt so special anymore and the after-school games had been spoiled. It wasn’t fair!

Carter swaggered over to Minh Ho, who edged backwards. With a widening smile, Carter held out his hand, palm up. “Minnow! Your probability of winning the next game is, like, zero, and you might get hurt losing. Whatcha got to give me?”

Minh Ho took another tiny step back. Behind him, the bank ended in a scruff of grass. It was a long way down to the sluggish creek.

Enough! Ginna gave a garbled cry and leapt on Carter from behind. His feet slipped on the mucky ground and they rolled to the edge. He flung out an arm and grasped the base of a shrub so he wouldn’t fall over the bank. With that advantage added to her fury, she managed to pin him.

She pried his mouth open. Her tongue felt gross when she placed it back in her mouth, slimy and sick like the poor creek frogs. She wiggled it until the taste improved. The Mochi III could make even Carter’s spit taste okay.

“My birthday present was upper body muscles,” she said, manufacturing a sneer and shoving hard on his chest. “Like ’em?” Everyone knew her mom always gave her the best tech available, and made her go to Saturday coding school, too. Only Minh Ho was a better hacker than her. Carter would probably think Ginna had even ramped up the thoracic units.

Now what? It was sort of an impasse. The foul smell of the creek was making her eyes water. She bore down on his shoulders, staring right into his angry eyes, into his brand new Oculux 10’s. Hey. She placed a finger and thumb on either side of his left eyeball.

“Pop,” she whispered.

Carter’s eyes grew wide. “Ghhh.” Spittle dribbled down his cheek.

The eyeball, squishy as a gummy bear, began to water. One or both? It would serve him right.

“Ginnnnna! Time for dinner!” Her house AI’s voice spilled down the steep bank, and other houses chimed in, making the ravine echo. The kids behind her stirred.

“Gin, don’t stoop to his level.” Minh Ho’s voice was panicky. “I’m gonna turn off my ears and hide until I can deal with this.” A rustle of branches and he was gone.

A couple of other kids murmured agreement and someone skittered off down the trail, their sneakers slapping on the trail that led up the bank, out of the ravine.

“Yeah, ChildWise says that threats are not an optimal course of action.” One of the red-haired twins, Marcelo maybe, sniffed up snot as he spoke, clearly reading off his wrist comp. “Other resources say Carter probably just has different brain chemistry and really high self-esteem. With practice, he can learn to modulate his actions.”

Ginna had recently read that, too, on some social media site. And there’d been a top ten list of famous local high school bullies. The psychology of aggressive children must be making the rounds this week.

Still squeezing Carter’s eye, she awkwardly used her other hand to tap open his wrist comp. A common Dynamik Quest, no problem. She touched it with her own customized mini-2000 and adjusted Carter’s dosages. A bit more dopamine, some beta-endorphin, and just a touch of Ritalin. Carter relaxed under her and they both slid a little more down the slope. She leaned in close. “I’m thinking you’re chronically depressed, that’s why you bully us. Read up on it, get some coping skills. At least learn to up your own dosage when you need to. Sheesh!”

Carter closed his eyes. She climbed off, hoping no one noticed how her hands shook.

***

Ginna stirred the green stuff into the white stuff on her plate. Even with her tongue maxed for sugar, she didn’t have much appetite for dinner. Outside, past the backyard fence, the ravine’s tangled treetops held darkness.

“What’s up, sweetness? The washing machine says your T-shirt has 20% more dirt than usual and I see your heart rate reading is a suspiciously round number. I’m not saying you’ve tinkered with the figure, but.” Her mom left the sentence incomplete and sat down across the table.

“Mom, if I looked up something online and then acted on that basis, and then, later, I found out that the information was imprecise, should I try to fix it?” Ginna drew some lines on the table with the fork she still clutched.

“Let’s see, that depends, I guess. Will it hurt someone? Is it an action with a long-term negative result?” Mom propped her chin on her hands and got that intent look.

Uh oh. Tears were threatening and that probably would override her bio-med tweaks. Ginna mumbled, “Thanks, Mom,” and pushed back her chair.

Mom’s voice trailed her down the hall. “We don’t know everything yet, you know. Sometimes you have to take baby steps, based on what you can extrapolate. Don’t be too hard on yourself. But don’t be too easy, either.”

Why hadn’t Ginna done more googling during afternoon recess, when Carter had clearly been having an aggressive sort of day? She stumbled up the stairs. Googling probably wouldn’t have helped anyway. She’d read psychology journals for over an hour just now, before dinner, aided by Vocabul-fab. All she learned was that even the best-rated psychologists had trouble fixing bullies.

Upstairs, she lay on her bed, below the open window. Flat on her back, thoracic muscles aching, she let the cool ravine breezes blow over her. Maybe Mom would give her the torso muscle superpack if she asked for it next birthday?

She punched her pillow. Would she really have yanked Carter’s eyeballs? Vision wasn’t plug-and-play. He would have been blind for at least a month while new ones were vat grown.

Anyhow, she’d only locked in Carter’s dosages for the next three days. There didn’t seem a need for corrective action. The patch wasn’t very sophisticated and maybe by the time Carter managed to unhack it, the cumulative effect of being calmer for that long would help him. Maybe that would be the baby step he needed to make him seek treatment.

And maybe she’d taken a tiny step herself today. No way ever again would she be that person who had squeezed his eyeball. Her stomach felt full of cold, cold clay. Better record that thought in her perma-journal.

She focused on the blank wall across the room, blinked up the virtual keyboard and screen, and began to type.

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About the Author

Holly Schofield has been published in Crossed Genres’ Oomph, Lightspeed, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tesseracts 17, Perihelion, and Cast of Wonders.

She travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of a prairie farmhouse and her writing cabin on the west coast.

For more of her work, see http://hollyschofield.wordpress.com.

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