Pillory agents were everywhere. Yancy could smell them. The waxy, newly minted reek of them was thick, turning her stomach. She seen the insides of one of them once. Back when she'd run the cracked cement of the river with Lack Luster and Envy Phenis. It hadn't been on to them. If anything had been on to them that sunset they would have been ripe for taking. Luster had lucked into a a few cans of spray in a decomposing cardboard carton buried under a a layer of the silty sand that had collected on the bank when the massive sandbags the army engineers had left there umpteen ago began to split open. They'd each untangled a plastic bag from a stand of river bottom bamboo and started spraying and huffing till their eyes were red and puffy and their noses were running and their chins were covered in drool. Lordy is was a good time. Yancy liked to think about it, even if she didn't do spray any more. Not for umpteen. Seen too many chunks sprawled on spray, too axed to know where up was, giggling helpless when Pillory agents rolled over them. Even when a chunk was upright, they gave the edge to the Pillory because of how spray scrubbed out your sense of smell. That sunset when she was with Luster and Phenis, they didn't smell that wide open pillory agent until they tripped over the carcass. What a trio of chunks. It was down deep in one of the tangles, its limbs bent and broken and woven into the bamboo trunks, its own trunk split by ragged splines of a unsprung shopping cart. Luster figured the pillory agent had been rooting up river when the last rain came. Anyone slow on the march was just another plastic bag as far as the water was concerned when it walled up and rolled down the channel. Yancy remembered how they'd hang off the chainlink that still ran nearby the banks in a few places when she was little. The wall pushed a wind ahead of it, birds squalling and tumbling, clawing turbulence, trying to get out of the way of the thing that was coming right behind them. Thick, humid, the wind was more a hot mist than air. Felt like you might drown in it. Behind the wind was the voice of the water. Louder than a Pillory chopper hovering over your encampment with some agent announcing that everything was about to be burned out so you better scamper. The water was barely a sound. More like a world to itself, how it blanked everything else. You didn't think anything could be bigger once it filled your ears and your head, stuffed you full of vibration, pressed your organs together like it was sitting on top of you. That voice smacked you and set you and your little pals swaying on the chainlink, and right behind it came the wall. Water stood up straight across the bed from edge to edde, reaching up higher somehow than the banks themselves, higher than the tiptop of the chainlink they clung to. They'd be washed off and away for sure. Some of them would drop off then. Let go and hit the ground on the dry side of the chainlink and start running, a wise old voice in their heads telling them it was a foolish way to die. Yancy never dropped. Her knuckles went white and she tasted pennies as she clenched her teeth so tight it made blood seep at the rim of her gums. She saw the wall, some kids dropped and ran, she blinked, and the wall was right there. If you'd climbed a stretch of chainlink that wasn't anchored at the bottom, your it would lift and billow and you'd go up and ride it, horizontal to the ground, sometimes more than horizontal. Your feet up higher than your head, soaked in the torrents that ran sideways through the air. The shreds of the wall that were ripped from it as thundered past. The water, the real water, it never got closer to the chainlink than as far as you could throw a big rock when you tried your hardest. They weren't stupid, Yancy and her crew, even when they were little like that. Closer than that, and the thick spray off the shoulder of the wall would be enough to sweep you up and away. They wall would pass, carrying everything with it, including their sense. They were bruised and half deaf in its wake, drenched and battered, water running off them like they'd been made into little tributaries of the thing. They'd drop from the chainlink then, splash when they hit and collapse. Grinning puddles with their minds erased by fear and joy. Spray had felt like that at first. Then it felt like trying to feel like that. Then it felt like nothing. Which became the point of it. But Yancy didn't spray no more. She wasn't a chunk. Again though, back on that sunset when they found the Pillory agent, Luster figured it must have been caught in the wall. Say it had been rooting for chunks, so pleased with itself after burning out a few, delighting in a job well done, and that had been enough of a distraction for it to nat pay attention when the wind came. Even if it had started up the banks then, it would have been too late. The second gust of the wind would have skittered that Pillory agent along the steep bank, scraping it raw, helpless until the wall caught up. Luster figured the wall had its way with the Pillory agent, batting it around, toying until subsidence. The wall tiring out downriver until it was weary enough to give up the Pillory agent to the bamboo. The agent had lost all its stiff parts by them, had them broken to dust, so it was easy for it to be tangles and knotted into the bamboo. And it might have been then, after the wall was over but while the water still heaved, that the pronged basket of the old shopping cart had swept by, snagged on the Pillory agent's body, and ripped it open down its length. And there it was, wide open in the sunset, its innards dry as old paper, but still stinking like it was fresh from the factory floor.
"They don't rot," Luster had said, her voice thick with spray.
Yancy wondered what someone would make of it later. If Luster was right, it would be around as long as the plastic bags they used to huff spray and to carry their stuff. Olders, when they settled, knotted the bags together to make walls and roofs for their encampments. They were good for hats in the cold nights, and everyone Yancy knew used them to line their shoes. You could braid them into a rope or a net or a blanket. They were everywhere, common enough that no one ever bothered to scramble to get one. Endlessly useful and durable and plentiful. Interesting in themselves for all the things that were printed on them. Yancy liked to pick them up just to see if she'd even read them before. She was always finding ones that were new to her. And Luster was saying the Pillory agents would last as long as plastic bags. But would they ever be as useful? Would they ever help someone to build a house or stay warm or catch a gull or keep them entertained on a long aimless hike? When they city was as littered with the carcasses of Pillory agents as it was with plastic bags, would people be able to make something of them or would they just fill the air with that stink and be a reminder of how stupid people had once been back when they had the Pillory and agents and thought those were good ideas?
They'd walked away from that split open agent that sunset, left it tangled, its mouth opening and closing as if it was still rooting for chunks. They'd found a deep pile of ferns in the river bed bottom and got their spray on. Later, when it got cold enough for them to recover a little sense, they'd huddled their bodies and draped themselves in plastic bags they'd found, warming and cozy and quite in love with each other, the three of them.
That had been umpteen ago. Lack Luster had been rooted since then. Envy Phenis was some other place that Yancy couldn't say. She didn't huddle up anymore. It wasn't like back then. Those were the good days. She was older now, and had responsibilities. Felt like a slow trap had been sprung on her, netting her so gradually that she hadn't even known she'd taken the bait. That's what being older meant, she guessed. If things were otherwise, she could tuck and run when she smelled the Pillory agents rooting close by. Instead she found herself snared. Not on her own and free to do as she wanted or wished. Running was the thing to do, but running was a luxury. She was going to have to do the other thing now.
It was funny to be an older. Not to hang on chainlink. No to do spray. Not to huddle up in a crew. Elder concerns were all bared teeth and sharps. Yancy didn't miss the spray. But she did miss being little on chainlink, careless and afraid, screaming as the water streamed across her eyes and blinded her to everything else.
What she'd been. What a wild little thing she'd been. She'd give umpteen to dance with that kid. Just once.
Pillory agent, close to hand.
She bared her teeth.