First off, a short story:
Earth to Earth
It was a rusty old thing that we lugged back from the surface. The oxidized metal box was the biggest tip off; even in the summer months, when the temperatures reach an excess of 500˚ F, metal like that doesn’t get hot enough to melt—only enough to liquefy the cheap plastic surrounding the strongbox until slimy looking scars slide down its surface fusing it to the ground.
I turned to Jake and exchanged a glance with him before dumping the collection of debris into the wheelbarrow to hide the box. It was easy enough to smuggle it back inside by covering it with our normal spoils: contorted obsidian, the odd fossil that survived the summer months, an interesting piece of twisted plastic goo. After one cursory check at the inspection row, we made it back to Jake’s room, waiting only long enough to latch the door before opening Pandora’s box.
I picked up my Dricone laser from the bedside table and handed it to Jake. We both knew that normally we should have waited with our marker beacon, letting its homing signal contact our boss, Fritz, so that he could drive over in his big and important Head Scavenger truck—the one he spends hours caring for during the dark summer months when we are all locked back in The Caverns. During the summer, that car is in pristine condition: the red paint that gets tarnished during the work season gets glossed over by a fine coat and the metallic parts—the hubcaps, the grill and most especially the antique Ford nameplate that Fritz is so proud of – are buffed until all the nicks and scratches are filed down so much you can almost see your reflection in them. During the winter though, as soon as October makes the atmosphere hospitable, the ash and dust that get kicked up blanket the truck so thickly that you have to clean the windshield, which only has one crack, every time the car gets left outside.
It’s Fritz’s job to open the cases we find and record them in his little purple notebook, just in case we find anything that can dissolve the toxic atmosphere above us. Every scavenger wants to be the one that finds the Xronos, an artifact that holds the secret for turning back the clock—one that can rejuvenate life on the surface.
I first understood what the Xronos was when I was seven years old. The summer madness had consumed me, being cooped up with my first caretaker outside my parents: Ripper. Madness isn’t uncommon among children fresh from their parents. I was making a scene in the corner— pounding my tiny fists against the steel coated walls, giving cuts and bruises to myself and everyone around me. I couldn’t remember what my mother looked like; I had seen her only two month before, but I couldn’t remember anything about her face: whether or not she had the same light smattering of freckles I had, whether her eyes were hazel or blue or brown… I could barely remember her dark stream of hair. So I took it out on anyone and anything nearby.
“Stop your sniveling, brat. No one likes the summer any better than you do.” Said Ripper, cracking his knuckles one by one.
I remember hearing but ignoring him. My fingers were bleeding from trying to dig my way out of the steel barracks.
“Kid, I said stow it! You’re starting to freak out the others.” Ripper got up out of his easy chair and picked up the shotgun next to him. All the other children, the ones older than us, looked wearily over at the machine in Ripper’s hands. It was no longer just my sector mates staring. The noise in the room softened to the low hum of whispers muffled by cupped hands. I had stopped scratching at the wall, but my throat whimpered in a guttural way. Everyone had gone still, except me. I couldn’t stop myself from shaking.
“Stop it!” Came a young voice I’d never heard before. “My sister, she ain’t sick,” the voice lied. “She’s just tired. You wouldn’t kill someone for being tired, would ya?” I felt a clammy hand pat my shoulder.
“I weren’t gonna kill her.” Said Ripper, almost sounding abashed. “Only throw her around a bit—you know, scare her, so she’d stop sounding like a creaky door hinge.” The man’s clothes rustled as he took a step closer.
“Maybe you should try using some WD40 before you start hitting anyone.” The boy said, sharply.
“Get out of the way, Kid.”
There was a long pause. “No.” He said.
“I can move you, boy. I ain’t above smacking you too.”
“Go ahead. I’ll take her beating while you’re at it.”
“If you insist.” Ripper clocked the boy twice with the butt of the gun, once in the head and once in the shoulder, before walking back to his big squishy chair in the corner to polish his toy. When he sat down, the buzz of noise started up again, leaving me, still shaking but mute, to help the boy crumpled on the ground. I dragged him over to a corner and with trembling fingers got out my canteen. Though my throat was parched and I had already used my water quota for the day, I used what was left to clean him up. He wouldn’t let me rip my white dress for bandages though:
“Soon all your clothes will get dirty. Let that one stay white a little longer.” He pleaded. I obligingly grabbed an old nightshirt from my duffle and ripped into pieces. He had a concussion, so I talked to him to keep him awake.
“That was really brave,” I said.
“Yeah, or really stupid. No wonder dad says chivalry is dead—that hurt like—like… I don’t even know what that hurt like.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, dabbing at the cut on his forehead with the water. He winced as the solution perforated the gash.
“Well, thank you, Jake Adams.”
“And yours?” he asked.
I smiled. “River Inovio.”
For the rest of the night, as we sat and talked, keeping him awake for fear of his concussion, I told him everything that I could about my mother, in hopes that this way I wouldn’t forget anything more about her. Jake told me stories his father had told him. Mostly they were stories about expeditions his Dad had gone on. His dad believed it was possible to make the surface livable all year round with the help of an artifact he called the Xronos.
“No one alive has ever seen it,” Jake said, eyes blazing, “but the ancient writings say the Last Pioneers buried it somewhere on the surface before exiling themselves underground. The ancients’ greatest fear was the world turning to fire and brimstone.”
“Their greatest fear was our July?” I said, amused for the first time in a month.
“I guess so—but I’m going to make them all happy when I find the Xronos and bring back life to the surface.” Jake shot up too fast, making him instantly dizzy. It took him a moment to get the landscape to settle. “We could live up there together, in the sun. No more dark summers down here.”
“That would be nice…”
For the rest of the night, Jake told me about all the things his dad had found on the surface. Books, hundreds of them, about surface wars: antiquated histories about Knights and people called Romans: men who fought for glory and honor and not just for survival. He talked about fights for freedom fought by men against their own leaders. Tyrants, he called the leaders, and the rebels he called Patriots. He talked about three wars that consumed the whole world.
“Your Dad had a really good memory! How did he remember all that stuff to tell you?”
“Easy,” said Jake, moving so his back rested more comfortably against the wall. “He just gave me the book he snagged from the surface.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I ripped a few more bolts of bandage from my old shirt and wrapped them around my aching fingers.
“You mean he stole it?” I said, finally.
“Well, yeah, I guess.”
“But you aren’t supposed to steal things… it’s wrong to take things from Scavenger.”
Jake shifted uncomfortably.
“Yeah, if you think they’d care about it… I don’t have it anymore,” he said, uncomfortably. “I lost it around the same time Dad disappeared. The cops said maybe Dad took the book with him… but when they found his body on the surface the summer after, there was no way to tell… everything was just ash.”
“He still shouldn’t have stolen it in the first place.”
“I guess.” Was all Jake would say. Shortly after that, Jake insisted he was going to sleep, concussion or no and turned to face the wall. I wandered back over to a free space closer to my age class and dozed off myself, half keeping a weary eye out for Ripper. Jake ignored me for the rest of the summer.
But that didn’t stop me from remembering the stories, especially when I found out at the Scavenger induction ceremony what we were all searching for.
“The Scavenger Program has been key in regaining technologies lost to us over the centuries,” began the speaker, a tall blonde woman with too much cherry lipstick and what my mother liked to call ‘Southern Hair’. “Founded back in 55 ACE, Scavenger has served the community—becoming the largest source of revenue for both the plebian class workers and the greater overall economy of The Caverns.” At this point, many of the new inductees, from where we stood on the stage, were yawning and fidgeting. Some of us, like me, were squinting across the great room searching out the faces of our families. Maybe it was because I couldn’t remember her face, but I couldn’t seem to find my mother. I did catch sight of Jake, however. “Though the program started as a way to utilize a task force to search out the elusive Xronos, the mission of the company has changed over the years.” The familiar name caught me by surprise. When I heard it, my eyes jumped back to where Jake sat. His eyes were trained starkly away from mine. I could swear he glanced my way once or twice, however. “We strive now to continue finding our old technologies to bring us back to where we were. In the last year alone we have discovered the bagless vacuum cleaner and the cordless light bulb. We hope the coming winters effort will reveal itself as fruitful as the last.”
After the applause died down, we were allowed to leave the stage in an amorphous blob and see our families for the first time in three months. Everywhere I looked, a mother was picking up her now fit and strong child, or a father was clasping hands with his daughter. Families hugged and listened to each other talk. Try as I might, I could not find my Mom anywhere. Emboldened by my weeks of training in Scavenger, I walked up to the nearest man wearing a Scavenger work shirt, and asked him to help me find my mother. He nodded and pulled out a purple electronic clipboard.
“What’s your name, Honey?” he said.
I told him. His nametag told me his name was Fritz.
“Inovio… Glacia is your mother’s name?”
“Yes.” I watched Fritz press a few buttons before an odd look passed over his face. His lip tightened and I saw his neck tense. He put down the clipboard and knelt down to my level.
“Darlin’, I don’t want to be the one to tell you this,” he put a gentle calloused hand on my shoulder. “But your mother passed away… about a month ago. She had the pox… I’m so sorry.”
The food in my stomach churned and all of a sudden it was like I had Summer Madness again. I wasn’t sure if I was screaming or crying or hitting or just standing perfectly still. I needed to run somewhere or do something but I didn’t move. I needed to shout, but I said nothing. I did nothing. Until finally it all came bursting forth like the floodgates on the reservoir during the rainy spring months. The panic attack came upon me suddenly and full throttle. Fritz couldn’t restrain me, and I managed to break his nose in the tussle. That’s when Ripper saw me. Even when I heard the click from the cocking of his gun, I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t even breathe.
“This one’s crazy, Fritz.” Came Rippers drawl. “She doesn’t know which way is up.”
“For god sake, Ripp, put that thing away.” Said Fritz, trying to staunch the blood from his nose with his yellowing hanky.
“Sorry Fritz. It’s for the best. I don’t like it any more than you.” In this crowd of reuniting families, I noticed that few of them had even reacted to Ripper’s gun. No one seemed to care. Then suddenly Jake was standing in front of me again.
“Get out of the way, boy.” Came Ripper’s gruff voice.
“The name’s Jake, not boy.”
“You can still get out of my bloody way, Jake. I ain’t playing.”
Finally Fritz jumped back into the fray.
“For God’s sake, Ripp, the girl just found out her mother died. I can’t believe you would pull a stunt like this. I’m going to talk to your supervisor. As for these two—” Fritz pulled me up, grabbed Jake by the arm and clasped each of us on a shoulder. “—they will be joining my crew from now on.” He steered us away from Ripp and his hot-tempered holster. We never had to report to him again. Fritz became our boss.
Because Jake and I were the only two in Fritz’s crew without partners, we became each other’s. After five years of training, we had our first mission. I was nervous to be working with Jake, both because of how he had stood up for me twice and because of how I had offended his father’s good name when I accused him of being a thief. On an even more superficial level, I wanted to show him I wasn’t the crybaby I had been years before. I hoped he wasn’t mad at me for what I’d said back then. At meal times, when we had sat on opposite sides of the table, him a few yards down the row, he had smiled whenever I happened to catch his eye. He didn’t seem angry: But he never brought up the subject of his dead father or the stolen book, either.
The sun shone blindingly bright on the day we were scheduled to go on our first scout. As a special treat, Fritz drove all of us up to the surface in his truck. Time and space zipped past us from where we sat in the back of his flatbed, and the sun had hardly gotten any higher in the sky by the time we made it to our location. Dragging our feet through the heavy, sweltering ash, we endured dust in our eyes and mild burns in our throats, searching for any type of usable remnants. We spent most of the day unsuccessful in our search. We both liked Fritz, so it was imperative that we did not disappoint him. From what we could see, the other teams had already found their first few artifacts. By early dusk, Jake and I were frustrated in our lack of findings.
“Do you even know what we’re looking for?” I asked, out of breath from hiking over far hills in a halfhearted search.
“Not really…” Jake muttered, walking into the shadow of a two-story mound of cement. We stepped inside the nearest doorway and almost tripped on the lack of ash in the center of the room. The stone tile floor was barren of everything but a fine thin layer of sand and dust, and ash only piled up in the corners of the room, near the entrances and in the hearth where it blew in from the chimney. The chimney, we had been told in our lessons, was a good place to look for valuables. When the ancients had realized the imminent fire barrage coming for them, many chose to stuff anything they did not want utterly destroyed in the fireplace, in hopes that the fireproof interior would keep it from decimation. This fireplace was no exception: buried under a mound of debris as tall as we were, we finally found our first spoils—seven canisters of metal used to house goods. Curious, we twisted off the caps and found inside a collection of dull browning spoons stuck together front to back that, when we presented them, were met with extreme delight. Jake said they looked like the utensil version of a Greek Phalanx. The first six canisters contained nothing but these spoons, but when we opened the final one, we found not just the spoons but also a fading bronze dog tag. The initials RDC were barely legible on one side, and the address of residence was almost completely worn off. To me, it was just a sheet of metal with a name fused to the bottom of a jar; Jake looked at it like it was pure gold.
It was stuck good to the inside of the canister, but after much prying and one chipped fingernail, Jake managed to wrench it from inside the box. He held it carefully by the silver beaded chain, eyeing its dirty rough surface longingly. We stuffed everything but the dog tag back into the cans and moved everything outside into the sun for collection. Once outside, Jake, still holding the dog tag in his hand, asked me to run back into the concrete; he had forgotten a canister by the opposite side of the hall. When I came back, I saw him shut the lid of one of the canisters with a broad stroke. He didn’t seem to be holding the dog tag anymore, but as I walked around him to set down the last box with the others, I noticed a slight bulge in his pocket—one that he tried to cover with his hand as soon as I glanced at it. I didn’t doubt what was in that pocket.
Our first few weeks of scavenging came with mandatory inspections. The dying sun in the west was cooling the air fast. These checkups were one of the rare times when you could shiver in your sleeveless shirts and shorts. We stood at attention, nevertheless, and waited for Fritz’s attentive eye. As he walked down the row, he did not check anyone’s pockets, not like Ripper, who we could hear from fifty yards away shouting and pulling out tiny trinkets from his entire troop. Fritz merely asked the same question to every pair of workers he passed.
“Did you see, or is it possible, your partner stole something from the surface? If you have seen them take something, they will be forced to the Bilge to spend the rest of the night in punishment. You, to reward you for your loyalty to Scavenger, will be allowed to sleep in your own bed. So once again I ask, did your partner steal anything?”
It seemed that in every pair, someone had stolen something. The pairs were divided up: those who had accused their partner were put in one group, those who had been accused were put in another. I was ahead of Jake in line, and as the pairs ahead were split up into the separate camps, I couldn’t get the image of Jake’s bulging pocket or the chipped dog tag out of my head. My head was spinning a bit and I felt sick. The pocket and dog tag melded together with images of Ripper attacking but Jake standing up for me—Jake taking my beating for me. I glanced to Jake, whose eyes resigned themselves to stare at the ground below him. He wouldn’t look at me. He knew I knew.
“Did you see, or is it possible, your partner stole something from the surface?”
I knew they were talking to me. I could hear my pulse racing in my ears and feel the pattering of my heart all the way up in my throat. It almost felt like I was choking.
“No. It isn’t.” I said, dreading the notion that I was going to spend the night in the Bilge. Older kids had spent the last few weeks of the summer teasing us with horror stories from the Bilge—none of which sounded very pleasant. Fritz merely looked past me, making a little check mark on his purple clipboard. He spoke next to Jake.
“Did you see, or is it possible, your partner stole something from the surface?”
“No way—” Jake said, a little breathlessly, as if he had been holding his breath. “Not even a little bit. I was with her the whole time.”
Fritz paused for only a second before ushering us off into a third grouping. He then continued along the process until everyone was sorted into one of the groups. Jake and I remained the only two in our grouping.
Once Ripper’s group and the other novice groups met together, Fritz ordered Ripper to take all the tellers to their quarters in the Caverns. He told the accused that he would personally take them to the Bilge momentarily. Then he walked up to us.
“I figured it would be you two this year.” He said, smiling at us. “Company policy states that only the accused go the Bilge.”
“So we get to go home?” I asked, nervously eyeing the party retreating to the ventilation shaft with Ripper.
“Unfortunately, company policy also states that only the ‘loyal’ subjects who accuse others are allowed back inside for the night.”
“So…” Jake said, putting it all together in his head. “Basically, we’re stuck out here until morning?”
“I’m afraid so.” Said Fritz kindly. “But that’s why I brought these, just in case.” He held out two light fleece blankets. Jake took them both in his hands, judging them skeptically.
“We’re going to freeze…” said Jake, testing the thickness.
“Ha! That’s a good one, someone freezing on the surface—even during the winter.” He laughed at us, not unkindly. “You’ll be fine. Nothing lives out here, and take it from me, the stars are beautiful.” He winked at us and walked over to lead his group to the Brig, leaving Jake and I alone, standing in the ash.
When everyone else had finally receded into the distance, Jake pulled the dog tag out of his pocket and turned to face me. He was livid.
“You knew I had this.”
I shrugged. “Well, not until now—I could run and go tell them now if you really want to go to the Brig.”
“Don’t give me that—You knew I had it before. Why didn’t you say anything?”
Again I said nothing but tried to blanket myself in my clothes for warmth. Pulling my arms inside my shirt, I found that only my shoulders felt cold. It seemed to infuriate him that I couldn’t come up with a good reason. Then he saw the goose bumps cropping up on my shoulders. He sighed.
“Come on, let’s sit down.” He spread out the blanket on the sand and we both plopped down on it. He handed me the second blanket to wrap up in. “You could’ve slept inside tonight, instead of here in the cold, you know.” He still sounded irritable.
Again I shrugged, and just pointed up at the sky, where pinpricks of light had appeared above us. Without other lights, they seemed to light the whole earth all by themselves. “Check that out…” As I spoke, we saw a flash of blinding light flare across the sky. Neither of us had ever seen a shooting star before.
“Make a wish!” I said. I liked the surface more and more as the day progressed. It may have looked barren, but there was something surreally beautiful about it too.
“I wished I would find it—you know, the Xronos. Find it before anyone else lays there grubby little hands on it.”
“I wish I’d snuck a sweatshirt up here.” I said.
“Is that really all you want? That’s what you’re going with?”
“Of course not, Jerk. You aren’t supposed to say your wishes out loud, or else they won’t come true.”
“That’s Bull Shit. How are they supposed to come true if no one ever knows them?” Jake chuckled, and I felt him shiver. I unwrapped the blanket from around me and let him get under it as well. It was warmer with two bodies anyway.
It got colder as the night went on, and towards the middle of the night, Jake took pity on me and wrapped me up in his arms. I stopped shivering immediately. We huddled like that until the winter sun graced the morning with a fresh but not-yet-sticky heat. As we sat up, a warm breeze ruffled our hair. It was the most refreshing sleep I had ever had.
From then on, in the winter, we spent every night like that – only now we had extra blankets of our own hidden safely in a nearby ruin. We all but vacated our rooms, only returning to their metal enclosed spaces when the summer forced the vents closed.
For the next few years, after beeping Fritz, he would arrive in the truck, drenched in sweat from the mild heat. He would ruffle our hair and tell us what great little workers we were. Then he would hoist up his jeans, spit on the rubble of whatever ruin was our latest quarry and tell us to throw the collection in the flatbed. He would drive us over to the ruin where we kept the blankets then reward us with free time to do whatever we pleased in the sunlight.
The first day of winter harvest the year I turned 17 was different. When the echoing ventilation shafts were finally opened after the months of musty spaces from the stale recycled air, Fritz drove me and Jake out to the eastern flats at dawn. He dropped us off at a tiny reedy hut, and it wasn’t long before we found our first cases, buried in the compressed ash of a tall mound. The first few were filled with the usual spoils: circular copper, silver and gold coins made soft from the sun, lumpy shards of metal—but as we dug deeper in and finally hit the second, rich, and silty crust of the earth, we found fresh oddities: a swath of lace from a doily. A sheath of hair, tied in a ribbon. Paper money. I couldn’t believe my eyes: Paper money. We touched it to know it was real, letting our fingers slide across the worn crumpled surface, gauging its existence on the happy paper cuts that gilded our burned and calloused hands. Jake picked each bill up and counted it carefully before placing all 10,000 dollars back in the box. We struck the earth with our spades hungry for more. Finally, just before signaling Fritz to our outpost, we found our last of 20 boxes.
“Damn,” Jake muttered, wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of a dusty hand and smearing his forehead with a dark sheen of soot. “You know, we find a lot of valuable shit, don’t we?”
“I didn’t really notice,” I said, truthfully. I took a long sip of water from my canteen, tasting the sharp zing of metal from the rust around the mouthpiece. After a long take, I held out the canteen to Jake, who took a swig then gestured toward the open boxes next to us.
“Look at this thing,” he said, picking up a round metallic object from the nearest box. “A real pocket watch” He brought it to his face, inspected it for a moment then bit down on it. “Solid fucking gold. And the hell is that thing?” he pointed at a heart cut blue gem the size of my fist.
“Louis the XIX’s golf ball?” I supplied
“And check this thing out!” said Jake, ignoring my comment and grabbing a pistol from a chest further down the line. “Check out the markings! It’s a colt! A genuine colt! With a carved Ivory handle and gold filigree down the barrel. Just like they used to have during the Gold Rush! I’d kill to have one of these.” He looked at me pleadingly, his grime-softened face making his grey eyes shine with liquid so that they looked almost silver.
“Put it back,” I said, trying to sound stern. Truth was, I kind of wanted to steal it too.
Jake waved a hand. “I’ll ask Fritz if I can keep it when he comes—” stubbing his toe on the edge of something hard, Jake stumbled and began swearing violently.
“Holy shit! Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck—that hurt! Fuck! What did I just step on?” While Jake hopped around on one foot, I took my spade and started digging around the area Jake had hurt himself. Buried under only a few inches of ash was a lunch box, the fading image of a man with a cape rusted onto its surface. More interested now in the lunch box than in hopping around like an idiot, Jake took the box from me and shook it gingerly. The sound was muffled, clearly not anything metallic. He tried, in vain, to unclasp the latch, but short of hitting it with our shovels, we couldn’t open it without destroying it in the process. We had never not opened a box before.
“We could just take it with us,” I said, looking up at him, hopeful that he wouldn’t remember me, only moments before, scolding him for wanting to steal the pistol. Fortunately his curiosity was just as strong as mine. He cocked his head and looked at me a moment before nodding slowly. Then he reached foreword and tucked a curl of dark brown hair behind my ear. His fingertips glided down my forehead and rested for a long moment on the curve of my cheek.
“You know I’m up for it.”
We hid it under a small pile of ash and waited to deliver the rest of the goods to Fritz.
A trip down the ventilation shaft and a shower of sparks later, the tin was ready to open. No one would come looking for us in our rooms—not during the winter. With trembling gloved fingers, Jake and I each gripped an edge of the lid. Several minutes of laborious tugging, the lid began to peal away slowly. Inside lay an ancient Polaroid, three wax-sealed letters of recycled paper and a thread-bound book. I picked up the picture first and studied it. Two young children of undistinguishable gender stood next to what I can only describe as a man made of pure white ash. The children wore mountains of clothing, some of it wrapped around their faces and necks in ways I had never seen before. They must have been boiling, but their faces were pink and elated, their hands patting the man of ash beside them. In the background was rubble before it was rubble, back when it had been a home.
Meanwhile Jake stood frozen, staring, gaze alight, at the little book. His hand hovered over the fraying cover as if anticipation surrounded it like humidity. His forefinger glided closer to its surface and just as the tips of his fingers landed, light as a feather, on the cover, a loud crack knocked from the opposite side of the door.
Jake only managed to stuff the little book, quick as a lightening flash, under his shirt before Fritz gently opened the door.
“It took a while to sneak it past Rip, but—” He had been smiling when he entered. When he saw us and the contents of the box spread out on the table, his mouth opened slightly and his brow creased. His face lost any color the sun had given it and his eyes grew big. I had tucked the photo halfway into my pocket but nothing could have made me fast enough to hide the letters as well. As it was, he snatched both the crumpled picture from my pocket and the letters from the otherwise empty case.
He turned to us, his expression wild and his breathing erratic, “You don’t want these silly trinkets. Here—” He thrust the little bone handled colt that Jake had found earlier into my hands, wrapped in a scrap of soft felt. “There’s something worth having. Share that now, you hear?” He shook his head and left a cardboard box on the table. “You might need it.” They were .45 caliber bullets. “You know. Target practice.”
Neither of us knew what to say: so we just nodded. Fritz’s breath shuddered as he walked with shaking steps over to the boiler cover and thrust the little collection of paper into the flame. He wouldn’t look at us as he left, stopping only a second to ruffle Jake’s rusty hair and squeeze my shoulder. Jake was late to dinner that night. Normally we would have walked down the crooked staircase together to our sector kitchen, but he left me to go ahead without him, saying he wanted to hide the colt away somewhere safe, like I didn’t know he was going to stuff it inside his granddads cuckoo clock, probably along with that book. When he arrived late to the table, he sat in his usual spot next to me in front of the pewter ale jug. Fritz spent the night glancing between Jake and me, nervously wringing his oil and coffee stained dishcloth between shaking hands. Having tossed our chipped plates and silverware on the counter, we left Fritz standing at the sink, still nervously wringing out his cloth. That was the last I ever saw of him. His position was taken over by Ripp and his beautiful truck worked into disrepair. During the winter months I still see its frame just outside the compound, melting a bit more with each passing year. Soon it will be just one more meaningless oxidized puddle.
After dinner I went back to my room, the nights on the surface still being too hot for sleep this early in the season, and fell into bed. Sleep just wouldn’t take: I couldn’t seem to find a comfortable place for my head. Listening to my clock’s steady ticking, tracing my eyes along the riveted seam of the wall up to where it met the effervescent glow of the ceiling screen where the night sky was projected. That’s when the shouting started. A combination of fresh adrenalin and curiosity took me to the door. I opened it a crack and the voices beyond boomed into the room. Men were huddled around Jake’s door, some shouting, others muttering inaudibly but underneath the weight of the frenetic noise was the constant muffled sound of hysterics coming from the other side of the door.
“Don’t—I swear I didn’t—I don’t—know anything!” said Jake.
My roommate, Lucy, having woken up at the wave of sound, had already made her way to where I was peering out the door. The three men surrounding Jake’s room had taken out their lasers and were melting away the entrance. Jake’s shouting became unintelligible under the vacuum hum of the laser, and Lucy and I watched as the men tackled the weakened metal until it gave way into the room. For a time, the doorway seemed to be made of men, all wearing polished combat boots and bullet vests, as they stormed into the room. We heard the pop of a chlorolizer and smelled its bittersweet residue even from where we stood hidden behind our door. Jake finally emerged, unconscious and being carried by six men. He was dragged out of sight, and those scouring his room were a human maelstrom churning the furniture apart: They ripped posters from the walls, overturned his handmade wooden bed and even split open the antique clock that had been passed down through Jake’s family for centuries.
“It’s not here! Just this piece of trash!” one of the men shouted, sending his fellow down the hall that Jake had been taken, holding a small bundle. We heard muffled whispers followed by a slapping noise and a sputtering cough.
“Where is it, boy?” the words echoed down the chamber. Another sound: this one metal against bone. Jake said nothing, and I could suddenly picture him, hard eyes stonily taking in the man before him. He never blinked. CRACK. A strained grunt. His eyes didn’t break contact. CRACK. A gasping breathe. A groan. A chuckle. Whispered words echoed down the hall. Jake’s voice.
“Why do you want to get that thing so bad?” no response. “You’re getting it in the dead of night? I always figured you guys would give me some kind of commendation—hell, maybe a coronation—wait, is that what this is? Are you my prep team? Are we going to get a manicure before the service? Because I would love to get the blisters really good and shined up before I accept my Nobel Peace Prize. Be sure to have them scrape all the cremation ash and gold dust from under my nails while you’re at it.”
“Shut it, Kid” a familiar jagged voice growled.
“Kinda hard to get all the loot for yourselves if the search for the book ends I guess.”
Lucy and I heard the scuff of a boot and another thump.
“How… How much of that cash do you ever even handle, Ripp…” Jake wheezed. “I find the damn stuff, and get paid… in… in beans.” He forced another strained, painful chuckle. “—quite literally in beans... what do you think was for dinner tonight? Pork and motherfuck--”
“What would you even do with another gold pocketwatch anyway.”
CRACK. Jake coughed and we heard the sound of some liquid, probably blood, splatter to the floor.
A strangled echo. One of the men in Jake room stormed out the door at that moment looked around shiftily. Garbled chuckles emanated from down the hall and I could hear the coagulating blood filling Jake’s mouth, slurring his voice.
“It’s not like you can buy time.”
A trigger click
A switch released
The strike of flint on metal
They found Jake lying at the bottom of the ventilation shaft, the antique colt pistol still gripped in his hand. Suicides weren’t uncommon in the pit, though one during the winter, when one could venture freely into the amber sky was cause for talk.
The whispers had mostly died down by the date of the funeral. The pink light shone on the edge of the wooden box, casting the inside of the casket in shadow. From the angle that I stood, next to Jake’s mother, in the place traditionally taken by a partner, I could see the flat line of Jake’s mouth, absent of his lively lopsided smile. His arms lay rigidly at his sides and none of him, not even the bend in his knees, was skewed. The only part that seemed natural was the silver beaded necklace peaking from underneath his collar. I could imagine the dog tag itself, pressed flat against his chest where I had placed it minutes before the ceremony. My eyes were too dry to form tears.
At the end of the service, Lucy sought me out.
“It’s just so terrible how he would kill himself.”
“Yeah… it is.”
We left the casket in the middle of the dusty plain with the others of the season so that they could burn up with the summer and their memories would scatter with the wind.
Lucy and I went to bed that night, a heavy silence crushing the room. I pulled out the photograph, edges brown and warped from its time in the boiler before I’d grabbed it to safety. I studied it at length, sitting erect on my bed, waiting for Lucy’s snores. As dawn approached, I leaned back against my pillow, and again was unable to find a comfortable position. There was something hard underneath the layers of polyester feathers. Almost disbelievingly, I reached into my pillowcase and lifted out a package wrapped in soft felt. The book fell out of the cloth silently onto my bed. The cover was completely blank except for the traces of a word, in ancient Greek, printed on it in gold leaf. The inside cover had a scrawl of charcoal in Jake’s hand.
Told you I’d find the damn thing.
Read it, memorize it, burn it.
I’ll buy you a few hours from those greedy sons of bitches.
PS. You were right, don’t say your wishes out loud…
©2012 Lex Vex