art by Jeffrey Redmond
by M. Bennardo
The birds are all screwed up this morning, and for a minute I'm distracted by a swirling flock of swallows that climbs and dives around and around in a crazy loop outside the window. Then I shake my head and say to Njoki again, "I don't want you leaving the house after school."
She gives me her scornful look and folds her arms. "I'm sixteen, mama."
"I don't care how old you are," I say. And I mean it, even though I can see the stubbornness of a woman in her--the stubbornness, in fact, of I woman I know very well, skeptical and willful and independent, not prone to quiet acquiescence to any authority as arbitrary as a mother. "There's a high radiation warning today, and I want you to stay inside."
"Why can't I be inside Marian's house?"
I shake my head. "How will you get there? Sometimes I don't think you think about things, Njoki."
These days are not easy for her, I know. The high elevation and equatorial position of Nairobi already means we're susceptible to the punishing radiation of the sun, especially with the weakening magnetic field--but today there is the added danger of solar flare activity.
Dark skin and youthful obstinacy are not enough to protect anybody from the slow build-up of carcinogens--and the scientists say this could last a thousand years or more, until the magnetic poles finish their reversal. This won't get any better in Njoki's lifetime.
"You're going out," Njoki says.
"I have to work," I say, suddenly tired of the argument. Ordinarily, I would telecommute on a day with a high radiation warning, but I need to be on-site to troubleshoot the servers. "I don't have any choice."
Early in the afternoon, when school is over, I find time to call home. I have to use a landline, of course--the solar radiation is frying all the cell towers today. When I was a girl, we thought landlines were quaint, an obsolete technology and a relic of old-fashioned times. Now, many days, they are the only thing that works.
That's how Njoki went to school today--through the cable modem. That's another difference from when I was a girl. Back then, they would have canceled classes. Today, they just tell the pupils to stay home and call in on videoconferencing connections. I know it must be even duller than ordinary school, without even the comfort of chatting with friends in the hall. For a moment, I feel kindly towards Njoki. It hasn't been easy for her.
But then the phone on the other end of the line rings for the eighth time and goes to voicemail. Now I'm angry, but I try to keep it out of my voice. Perhaps Njoki is in the bathroom or listening to music, but I don't believe it. I leave a message, telling her to call me right away.
I have to work late and call again at 1830, just before I leave. There is no return message on my voicemail--Njoki has not called me back. Again, the phone rings eight times and goes to voicemail. This time I hang up.
In the bathroom before I leave work, I catch sight of my face. My jaw is set like a sprung bear trap, my eyes glittering and hot. This is how I want to look--furious, outraged, insulted. I used to wear this face often with Njoki's father. He charmed me when I was young and stupid, but he proved insubstantial and unserious.