Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Adult

Mulberry Lane (Phase Two)

by Craig Evans

Author Bio

Craig has lived in the Bay Area his entire life. He attended Terman Junior High School and Gunn High School in Palo Alto. He spent most of his adult life working in the nonprofit world, with organizations helping at-risk kids and children in California's foster care system. He now spends most mornings writing and most afternoons reading "how to" books about writing. He shelters-in-place in Palo Alto with his wife Diana, his 14-year-old daughter Erin, and their 7-year-old dog Scout.

Inspiration

We recently bought an Amazon Alexa and I was intrigued with the idea that it is always listening. It struck me that if someone hacked all the smart speakers on the street, they might hear a lot of catty neighborhood gossip (though of course, in our house, we only extol the virtues of our neighbors). During the writing, the smart speaker idea changed to hacking emails and texts, and I didn't figure out the identity of the cyber-criminal until half-way through the first draft.

Judge Comments

From the opening paragraph's evocative description of a "Rockwellian scene" in a Bay Area suburb to the stunning ending, this thought-provoking story takes the reader on a roller coaster of emotions and conclusions that circle back and make one wonder: could this happen here? Even more alarming: is it taking place right now?

— Debbie Duncan

It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday in June, in Concord, California. Eighty-two degrees and a cloudless sky. The second week of summer. If viewed from above – maybe via a Google map livestream – you saw on Mulberry Lane: a man in a straw hat pushing a lawn mower, a teenage boy practicing free throws in one driveway and a young girl heaving up three-pointers in another, a Great Dane walking a petite lady down the sidewalk, a woman gardening in a front yard and a teenage boy pulling weeds in a backyard, and, an elderly lady inching down the block with a walker. The Rockwellian scene was completed when a Mister Softee truck – covered with pictures of ice cream bars and frozen treats – slowly rounded the corner and crept down the street playing "It's a Small World" from its overhead speakers. Keen ears with small feet exploded from houses, with parents clutching their wallets, trailing behind. Every kid and adult had a smile on their face – everyone loved the ice cream man.

Carole Pratt, at her computer, tilted her head, recalling how her son (now a junior at Wesleyan) used to dash out the door whenever he heard the jingle. Then she turned back to her email. Tomorrow, from 2:00 to 4:00, the block was holding its annual ice cream social and Carole, for the sixth year in a row, was in charge. She was momentarily annoyed that her husband, Tom, wasn't attending, then she remembered why. Tom had an open house because he'd signed a new client. And this was Tom's fifth grand opening weekend in a row! Fortunately, Maria Flores (three doors down) said she'd help prepare for the party.

Maria had just placed two dozen chocolate chip cookies on the cooling rack. (The first batch was already piled on three plates, under Saran Wrap.) She could hear her husband in the family room watching an old Northwestern football game. Enrique – and the whole family – had become instant Wildcat fans when Junior got his acceptance letter. Maria looked out the window at her son, weeding in the backyard – he'd be the first in the family to attend college. Junior's younger sister, Isabella, was where she usually was – laying on her bed, listening to music, texting friends. In the fall, Isabella would be a freshman at Concord High School. Maria wondered if Sam, the only other girl her age in the neighborhood, would be attending CHS.

At the far end of the block, Sameeha ("Sam," to her friends) was standing in front of her parent's bedroom mirror holding up a square satin scarf. For the fourth time, she: folded opposite corners together, forming a large triangle; draped the long side over her head with the two corners falling forward over her shoulders (and the third corner behind her head); pinched the fabric under her chin and pinned it. She immediately realized it was too tight – the safety pin was cutting into her skin. She forced the fabric together and released the safety pin. She'd need to ask her mom for help. Sam was excited to wear a hijab – and knew her parents would be proud – but was nervous about how she'd be received in high school. She'd seen stories online of kids being teased, even called "terrorists," and of teachers demeaning Muslim students. But she didn't think any of those stories were from the Bay Area, and she knew one Concord High teacher already – Mr. Hanes, who lived down the street. He seemed OK.

Lucius Hanes was laying on the couch reading, "3D Modeling in Facial Recognition," in Discover. On the floor next to him were issues of Popular Science and Smithsonian. He closed the magazine, dropped it on the others, and picked up the legal pad laying on his stomach. He wrote, "Facial Recognition – used by college admissions??" to a list of discussion topics. Lucius knew he'd spend most of the summer listening to podcasts and reading science journals. Fortunately, he loved to read. He glanced at Evan, in the recliner, engrossed in a Harlan Coben mystery, and thought again how they made a perfect couple. His mood soured when he remembered that, a few days ago, he'd told Carole they'd attend the block party – "they wouldn't miss it." He wasn't too excited about being the token gays at the party. Maybe he'd give everyone a thrill and hold Evan's hand. And it didn't help that he was the only black person on the block; Lucius knew he offered a smorgasbord of options to the neighborhood bigots.

Ida was on the couch, with a glass of iced tea, recovering from her walk. She took a sip and carefully placed her glass in the center of the round stone coaster. Daily afternoon strolls started thirty years ago, after Herb got his new hip. She smiled, thinking about the picture they once made – Herb, moving gingerly with the walker, while she vainly commanded Daisy (their pug puppy) to heel. Once Herb was healthy the three of them might spend an hour meandering about the neighborhood. She was always amazed how Herb had something to say to every neighbor – about their yard, their car, or the 49ers. He said the block reminded him of Wisconsin – a place where neighbors were like extended family. Herb used to love the ice cream social . . . But eighteen years ago, a heart attack took Herb, then two years later, she lost Daisy. And now Ida was the one that needed the walker. It still took her forever to make it down the block, but she did so without talking to a single person. These days she'd be afraid to strike up a conversation, fearing the person might not speak English. She wondered how Herb would navigate the block now – they weren't in Wisconsin anymore.

~ ~ ~

The next day, sixty-five people attended the ice cream social – a great turnout. Like every year, Carole bought two three-gallon tubs: one vanilla, one chocolate. Like every year, it surprised her vanilla was more popular.

Enrique and Junior helped Carole set up the tables and Maria's cookies were a big hit. Three days ago, Enrique had planted a Trump/Pence 2020 sign on their lawn. All the neighbors had noticed, though nobody mentioned it at the party.

Sabiyya helped Sam with her hijab, which she wore in public for the first time. During the party, as her eyes kept drifting back to her daughter, Sabiyya was overwhelmed by two feelings: she was happy her daughter was leaving childhood behind to become a Muslim woman, and, she was sad her daughter was leaving childhood behind to become a Muslim woman.

Lucius and Evan stopped by briefly, but they didn't hold hands. As he often did at parties, Evan drifted away to mingle. He left Lucius trapped with a neighbor pontificating about the insidious nature of dry rot – how you never knew what was festering beneath the surface of a home. While Lucius pretended to listen, he wondered – not for the first time – if Evan felt more comfortable socializing with white, straight neighbors without his black, gay husband.

Ida was surprised when Carole got everyone's attention, then announced that Ida was the longest standing member of the neighborhood. Everyone applauded and several people – many of whom she'd never met – came up and congratulated her. She spent the rest of the party thinking about Herb and got depressed when she realized that nobody at the gathering had even met her late husband.

Everybody felt the ice cream social was a success. Nobody knew they'd just attended the neighborhood's thirty-third consecutive annual summer party; and, nobody suspected it would be the last one ever held.

~ ~ ~

On the following Tuesday, Lucius received an email addressed to Ted Davenport, the principal of Concord High School. He was about to forward it when he noticed his name in the second line. It read:

Dear Mr. Davenport,

Our daughter, Sameeha, is an incoming freshman. It has come to our attention that one of your teachers, Lucius Hanes, is not only openly gay, but that he flaunts his lifestyle in front of his students. We feel his behavior is sinful and should not be promoted in a public high school. Who you hire is your business, but who teaches our daughter is ours. Please do not have Sameeha assigned to Mr. Hanes' class. Thank you.

Jameel & Sabiyya Al-Sami

Wondering if he'd been cc'd on the email, Lucius looked at the sender. It was from [email protected]

~ ~ ~

On Wednesday at 2:12am several messages appeared in Maria's inbox related to the Trump/Pence sign on their lawn. It was 6:45am when Maria, unplugging her phone in the kitchen, noticed the comments from people she had considered her friends . . .

"How can they support the guy again – he hates Mexicans."

"They're either stupid or racist – probably both."

"Somebody should take that sign."

"Maybe we should build a wall around their house."

"They should be deported."

When Enrique entered the kitchen, he found his wife at the table, crying. She handed him the phone. As he read, his eyes narrowed and his jaw clinched. They didn't recognize the person who forwarded the messages, [email protected]

~ ~ ~

At 3:04am Carole Pratt received a text asking, "Do you know where your husband was last Saturday?" That morning, while Tom showered, Carole scrolled through the texts on his phone. The past several weekends Tom hadn't been holding open houses; he'd been meeting with his new assistant. The playful, intimate messages turned her stomach. Thirteen years ago, Tom had had an affair. It took Carole years to forgive him. Carole sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the shower, staring at their wedding pictures on the dresser.

~ ~ ~

At 10:24am Sam was laying on her bed listening to "Old Town Road" when her phone buzzed. She opened a text to see a picture of Enrique "Junior" Flores standing before his mirror, naked. (The hijacked message had been originally sent to Junior's girlfriend.) Thirty seconds later Jameel and Sabiyya simultaneously received texts warning them that a neighborhood boy was sexting their daughter.

~ ~ ~

That same day, several emails from Ida's sent folder were leaked to her neighbors. In them: she decried what she called the "browning" of the neighborhood, she wished "those people" would go back to wherever they came from, and, she said she was happy Herb didn't live to see their block turn into a slice of the third world.

~ ~ ~

On Saturday morning, at 6:00am, a message from [email protected] 29475037.com was sent to all email, text, Facebook and Instagram accounts in the neighborhood. It said:

Dear Mulberry Lane residents:

- Click HERE to see which of your neighbors have DUI's, drunk and disorderly charges, and possession of controlled substance offenses.

- Click HERE to see domestic violence charges and restraining orders filed against your neighbors.

- Click HERE to see other illegal acts committed by your neighbors.

- Click HERE to see the pornographic viewing habits of each of your neighbors.

- Click HERE to see private leaked pictures and videos of your neighbors.

~ ~ ~

That weekend Mulberry Lane, if viewed from above – maybe via a Google map livestream – was oddly lifeless. Few neighbors left their homes and when they did, they avoided eye-contact. If anyone had walked down the block, they'd have heard more than a few loud arguments and slammed doors.

By the end of the summer on Mulberry Lane there were: four fist fights, two arrests, three divorces filed, and five "for sale" signs appearing on front lawns.

~ ~ ~

Six thousand miles away Pavel Goryunov sat at his desk in a corner office of a gray three-story building. He was staring at a blank screen, waiting. There was no sign in front of the nondescript building; it had no address. The structure, like Pavel, had no affiliation with any official government agency. Though at the moment he was alone, in 2016 Pavel had managed 200 people, who utilized over two million bots (and Facebook and Twitter), to influence the presidential election in the most powerful country in the world.

In December 2018, however, a new study determined that as long as American families and communities remained intact, American society would persevere. The current administration – intentionally or not – was undermining the public's confidence in traditional institutions. Efforts using social media to foment racial and class divisions were continuing unabated. America was rotting from the head and decaying from within. At the family and community level though, the country was still strong.

Pavel received a new assignment.

In January 2019 he selected a small team of his best hackers and got to work. He was delighted when reconnaissance revealed the bedrock of American society was a soft target; hacking personal Wi-Fi accounts would be ridiculously easy. The only challenge was finding a way for an operative – on the ground – to get close enough to intercept the Wi-Fi signals without raising suspicions.

Pavel's computer beeped. He clicked on the message. As he read the report, he smiled. As he'd suspected, the target was as fragile, as it was soft. And once the accounts were hacked, the operation could easily be run remotely. He closed his eyes and did a few quick calculations. He figured each "disruptor" could handle ten neighborhoods per week. That meant with a staff of two hundred . . . assuming fifty houses per neighborhood . . . he could destabilize a large city in less than a month.

Pavel opened his eyes. He needed to make some calls: to get his staff back together, and to get more operatives on the ground immediately.

~ ~ ~

It was July 18th in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Seventy-Eight degrees, partly cloudy. There were thirty-nine Wi-Fi accounts on Bellwether Way, ninety-eight email addresses and one-hundred and twenty-four cell phone accounts. At 4:23pm a Mister Softee truck slowly rounded the corner and methodically crept down the street playing "It's a Small World" from its overhead speakers. Children spilled from their houses, with parents trailing behind. Every kid and adult had a smile on their face – everyone loved the ice cream man.