Monday, May 11, 2020

A Book to Live By by M.E. Proctor

In a dystopian future, Jake goes scavenging for food and finds a greater treasure.

Jake walked by the memorial at the foot of the wall every day. He remembered it when it was fresh, when the wreaths were bright and the toys didn't look like escapees from the landfill. It appeared in the early days of the Big Hope surge, when the first babies were taken to the orbiter. The orbiter was a bright beacon of optimism. People looked up as it sailed by shining like a shooting star. The news bulletins claimed the orbiter was the future and everybody believed it. Soon, the stories went, the shuttles would come down and take everybody up there where life would be so much better. It was the Big Hope, all right.

From the start, Jake believed it was the Big Bullshit Illusion. The orbiter was too small. Oh, it was a sizable ball of light, and maybe it could hold all the people in town, but it certainly couldn't hold all the people from all the towns everywhere. Even with the wars overseas, the sicknesses brought by the bad air and the foul water, and the crazy weather upheavals, it was still a lot of people. And questionable people too. Jake doubted anybody would want to zap up Rudy Two Fists or Glenda the Mouth, or even Seb, his best friend, who was sweet-natured and could tell jokes that would rip you in two, but was zonked out of his head three quarters of the time. Jake doubted anybody would want a street kid like him on the blasted orbiter. Granted, he could read and write, and make sums well enough to avoid being taken by hustlers, but how could that be sufficient to punch his ticket? Unless hustlers made it to the orbiter too. That would be funny. Maybe the orbiter was just like this crap town. Maybe they had their Rudy who beat up those who stood in his way and even those who didn't, and a Glenda who could do things with her tongue you wouldn't believe.

Jake was hungry. It was time to go to Riverdale. There was a house over there, a white cube on top of the hill, with bins that always contained something tasty. The people who lived in that house were tidy. They took the trash out before it started to stink. Maybe they would be good candidates for the orbiter. Getting to the food was risky because of the prowler. Riverdale was wealthy, but not unfathomably rich. The truly loaded lived in locked estates out of town where even the garbage bins had alarm systems. Riverdale was still somewhat reachable. Cautiously reachable. The neighborhood paid for the cop in the prowler.

Jake had mapped in his head the dark spots between the light poles, and the location of bushes big enough to hide him. Sometimes the prowler didn't turn its lights on and would sneak up on you. The car engine was very quiet. Not like the vehicles down by the tidal basin where Jake lived, that were sputtering and clanking. He listened. The neighborhood was silent except for the buzz of street lights. The hunger was somewhere down in his stomach, subdued. He knew exactly when his insides would start to hurt. He crawled around a boxwood hedge and looked up. The house was a ghost in the night, a perfect cube. He imagined drawing dots on the sides, like dice. What if it rolled down the hill? Would he score a big six? He perceived a slight variation in the buzzing sound. The damn prowler! He dropped flat on the ground. Suddenly there was a white stream of light and a booming sound. Three sharp shots echoed in the night, followed by a muffled cry. The prey was down. Jake sat on his heels behind the hedge. He didn't feel any sympathy for the fallen scavenger. He was a competitor and the prowler did him a favor tonight.

Its work done, the prowler slipped away, bright headlights painting the downhill street. Jake didn't understand why the prowler always went back to base. Why didn't the cop continue the hunt? Where there was one scavenger there could be more. Jake whispered a soft prayer, words to say in the night when danger was avoided. His mother knew appropriate words for every possible event. She learned them from a book that was lost during one of their frequent moves. They moved so many times. This was the longest Jake ever stayed in one place, because, frankly, there was no reason to go anywhere. There never was a reason, but his mother couldn't give up the hope that was always around the next corner. Now she was gone and Jake stayed put.

He peeked around the boxwood. The street was empty. No sound except the cicada drone of the lights. The house was protected by a high fence with razor sharp spikes on top. Jake had climbed over it twice, once to get in and once to get out. The spikes gave him such a fright that he puked the dinner he worked so hard to get. He feared that the next time he would be so scared of the spikes he would cut himself to ribbons. So, he found another way in. Under the fence. Digging the hole and figuring out how to conceal it was hard work. Now, all he had to do was wipe off the loose dirt, remove the piece of wood that closed the hole, slip under the fence and push up the wood cover on the other side. He used a cardboard tube pushed through the fence to cover the lid with dirt after each expedition. It was a good trick, efficient.

Jake went up the hill to the house. The garbage bins were in the back, near the garage entrance. He made a large circle to avoid the motion-activated lights. He was almost caught once when the garage doors opened and triggered the lights. It was the owner coming back late at night, in a car that was as quiet as the prowler. One of the bins was almost full. Jake pulled on a pair of gloves and unslung his backpack. Sometimes there was barely enough to fill his pockets. This was a night of plenty. Half a loaf of bread, only slightly moldy, a pack of cheese slices fuzzy green along the top, two oranges, soft but still edible, a bruised apple, a box of stale crackers. The other bin was only half full. Jake retrieved two cans of soup and a can of tuna. They were well past their sell-by date but that didn't bother him. And then, wonderful surprise, half a pizza! Still in the box! Still smelling like heaven! It awoke his hunger, with a vengeance. He folded the box. It barely fit in the backpack.

On the other side of the fence, behind the boxwood, Jack ate two slices of bread and one of the oranges. Being so close to the food, with the smell of pizza filling the air, the hunger was unbearable. His fingers hovered over the pizza box but he resisted. He would savor that at home, safe behind locked doors. He went down the street, using the same precautions as before, from one patch of shadow to the next, behind the bushes. He bumped into something. It was the wheel of a bicycle. Nobody left such a prize possession in the open. It couldn't have been there long. Jake guessed it belonged to the prey bagged by the prowler. The cop must not have seen the bike or he would have taken it. It was a good bike, solid and heavy. A small cargo trailer was attached to the rear wheel. Jake hesitated. He would be a big target on this thing. On the other hand, he couldn't pass on the opportunity. He didn't have to keep it; he could sell it. Sam Robichaux would pay good money for it. Jake pulled the bike out of its hiding place. He quickly found his balance and his feet rested on the pedals naturally. The owner of the bike must have been as tall as he was. He went down the steep street cautiously at first, then gained speed. It was exhilarating. The air was as smoky, thick and funky as usual, but when it hit his face it felt almost fresh. He wanted to whoop in joy. He negotiated the sharp turn at the bottom of the hill deftly and slowed down as he approached the dangerous crossing with the highway. Trucks barreled down that road and they didn't stop for anything. Jake was about to pedal across when a black shape emerged from the night. It was a van, no lights, silent, followed by two long dark cars. An official convoy. Probably bound for the spaceport north of town. The wind of the cars' swift passage ruffled Jake's hair.

The gigantic flash of light came first, then a thunderous blast. The force of the explosion swept Jake, the bike and the trailer into a ditch. The filthy trench saved his life when a tornado of debris blew over him. He scrambled up the side of the ditch. The convoy vehicles were burning. Jake pulled the bike and the trailer out of the ditch. Dirty but otherwise okay. It was a terrible idea but he wanted to see what was left of the convoy. As he approached the site, he understood what happened. A fuel truck backing out of Don Amato's garage smashed into the convoy's lead vehicle. Boom. Amato's garage, the gas pumps, oil cans, old grease and tire supply were ablaze. There wasn't much left of the fuel truck and two of the convoy's vehicles. One car was on its side, smashed against the pole topped with Amato's broken neon sign.

The car windows were blown out. A man's body was hanging out of the windshield. Another man was crushed under the car. All Jake could see were his shoes sticking out. Black, shiny. That would fetch something at market. He surmounted his repugnance and yanked off the shoes. He dropped them in the bike trailer. Better be quick, cops would show up soon, and other scavengers. He riffled through the pockets of the man stuck in the windshield and retrieved a wallet. Money, pictures, an ID card. He gave a brief look at the inside of the car and jumped back, startled. A face streaked with blood stared at him. A girl.

"Help me," she said. "I can't move."



Cathy's head was ringing. One of her eyes was glued shut. She couldn't feel anything below the neck. She thought: "Great, my spine is broken. So many years, so much knowledge and now I'm crippled. Ain't that a riot!" Strong arms pulled her out of the car and lifted her. A foul smell surrounded her.

"You're badly hurt," a voice said. "I'm taking you to the hospital."

No, that won't do! Cathy's body was as inert as a load of wet laundry. "No hospital, no police," she said. "Please." She craned her neck and saw a tall slender silhouette. A kid on a bicycle; she was in a trailer.

"Okay," the kid said, "but you're gonna die."

He got the bike rolling, Cathy saw a dirty ponytail, lean muscles working under a dirty shirt. That's where the offending smell came from.

The ride was fast. Down a road, up another, along streets zigzagging between old buildings, not a light anywhere, all windows blind. Then a smooth curve along the flat expanse of a black beach. Cathy smelled the sea, the rotten cloying stench of seaweed, and from time to time the unexpected aroma of pizza. Pizza? The mouth-watering smell came from a backpack in the trailer. The bicycle went down a gravel driveway. There was a structure ahead. It looked like a shed. The kid carried her out of the trailer and put her down on a mattress that smelled of mothballs.

Cathy slept. When she woke up, she saw a glass of water and a slice of pizza on a shred of newspaper next to her pillow. The bicycle and the trailer were in a corner of the shed. The kid was nowhere around. Her right arm was still limp, but the left one was awake. Needles stabbed her cruelly from shoulder to fingers. The pain was good news; it meant her spine wasn't broken. She managed to get to a sitting position. She could move the toes of both feet and that was reassuring even if the shape of her right leg was terribly wrong. Surprisingly there was no pain down there. She drank the water, ate the pizza, and fell asleep again.

The kid was in a corner of the shed, cleaning the bike, and speaking in a soft voice when Cathy stirred. Some kind of poem. She stifled a moan. The kid heard her and came running. He had bathed and his clothes were clean. No more foul smell!

"You're awake, and you're no longer paralyzed," he said. His voice was pleasant, musical. "I guess you won't die. I'm Jake. Do you need to use the bathroom?"

He was very considerate, very polite.

"I'm Cathy," she said. "Thank you for getting me out of the car. I think I have a broken leg. I can't get to the bathroom on my own."

He put a shoulder under her left arm, grabbed her waist, and carried her to a small cubicle in a corner. He sat her on the toilet. He was gentle for such a big, rangy, rawboned boy. There was a sink, a bar of soap and a ragged towel. He filled the sink and told her to call him if she needed help.

Later, Jake cooked soup and the moldy bread made good sandwiches with the cheese. For the first time since she escaped, Cathy filled her stomach. She told Jake she was infinitely grateful and apologized for depleting his supplies. He shrugged in a funny way.

"The night was good," he said. "We take it as it comes, right?" He muttered another little poem, something about currents.

"Is that a prayer?" Cathy said. "The words are sort of familiar, but the way you say them... Is it your faith?"

"I'm not religious," Jake said. "My mother memorized a book. I like the music of the words. I'm saying them when I'm out there, at night, or in here, to keep myself company. It feels good and it reminds me of my mother. Sometimes I sing the words, or I speak them as if I was on a stage. For my own, uh, pleasure? Does that sound stupid?"

"Not at all," Cathy said. "Jake? I can't stay here. I'm putting you in danger." He hiked his shoulders as if she'd said the most absurd thing. "The men who died in the cars worked for very powerful people. Once they figure out that I'm not dead, they'll look for me. I have something they want. I escaped, and they want me back."

"Escaped?" Jake said. "From where?" She pointed a finger at the ceiling. "The orbiter? You were on the orbiter?" He pushed away from her, slack-jawed. "And you escaped? They say it's paradise up there. Escaped? But you're what? Fifteen, sixteen, like me? They only take babies up there."

"I'm much, much older than you," Cathy said. "Like twenty times older." She laughed at the expression on his face. "I'm not crazy, Jake. Or a vampire or something. I have a condition. I age very slowly. That's why I was on the orbiter. Space travel takes a long time, you see. You put young people in a space craft and by the time they get to destination, they're dead. They would have to make babies on the way to have a chance at colonizing anything. A ship filled with people like me, the chances are better." She shrugged. "So they poke me, test me, take samples to try to replicate that thing I have."

"They replicate on babies?" Jake said. He looked horrified. "What about that thing where they put you to sleep for the voyage? Is that a crock of shit, like the Big fucking Hope, a lie to keep us all quiet down here believing that one day we could go somewhere else that's clean and healthy?"

Cathy laughed. "Hey, I'm just an abnormality! I don't know anything! I just don't want them to work on me anymore. Maybe one day, they would kill me to see how I'm different inside." She told him that she hid aboard a transport bound for the surface, and she was lucky for almost a week. Then she was caught trying to steal food. The cops tagged her and her DNA lit alarm signals. The men in the black cars came and took her. "I can't stay here, Jake. They'll turn the entire town upside down to find me."



Cathy was in no condition to go anywhere. Her arms and hands were working but her legs couldn't support her. She begged Jake to reset the broken bone, an operation that she endured with more fortitude than Jake whose heart was in his throat. He was more effective at rigging a splint, maybe because she was unconscious by then and his hands shook less when he could not see her eyes.

Cathy ate like a bird but still the bounty from the Riverdale house didn't last. Jake went out for food and information. He left the bike in the shed and wandered behind the ruins of Don Amato's garage. The site was circled by yellow tape that flapped in the wind. He shot a quick glance at the carcass of the fuel truck. What was left of the other vehicles had been removed. By now, the investigators would know that the girl was still alive. Jake pushed the heat-deformed door of the shed behind Amato's workshop. The smell of smoke and cooked chemicals was strong and he wrapped a bandana over his nose and mouth. His objective was the closet in the back where Amato kept spare tools and replacement parts. Under a mess of tumbled metal sheets and molten electrical wires, he found a treasure throve of screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, and drill bits. He filled his backpack with as much as he could carry.

Sam Robichaux was surprised to see him. "I thought you'd been picked up. There's cop activity all over town. What have you got?" The tools were good quality. Sam knew better than ask where they came from. Found, stolen, swapped, it was all the same to him. This was a recycling economy and possession was better than title. They bargained hard. Jake exchanged the tools for four cans of tuna, a sack of stale bread rolls and five apples. Sam added a bag of hard candy. "Bonus," he said. "Don't go break a tooth on these now, y' hear!"

Seb was in his usual lair, a cellar by the tidal basin. Jake caught him at the right time. Seb had scored a batch of pills and planned to go through all of them. He had only taken one when Jake crawled into the shelter and he was still coherent. Seb's reckless way of life made him a valuable source of information. He navigated in a dangerous world of dealers and addicts who kept a wary eye on anybody with the power to lock them up. The gossip in town was all about the accident on the freeway.

"The cops say it was a bomb," Seb said.

Jake didn't have to feign surprise. A bomb?

Seb giggled. He tapped the side of his nose in that quaint gesture he copied from old gangster movies. "It's a pretext. They yell terrorism and they barge into houses and shops. It started this afternoon on the east side, and they put up road blocks. Glenda the Mouth says they lost something. Something that was in one of the cars." He stared at Jake, a deep frown creasing his prematurely wrinkled forehead. "You wouldn't know, would you?"

Sometimes Seb was freakishly prescient. Luckily for Jake, the pill was starting to kick in.

"Jake? Would you mind saying some of these poems of yours that are like songs?"

Soon Seb was smiling and drifting, totally absorbed by the colorful tapestry his mind was weaving to accompany Jake's soft voice. Jake pocketed a few pills. Cathy would need them, for the pain.



"My friend says they're searching house to house," Jake said. "We'll leave right away. I'll pack food, supplies and warm clothes. There's a nasty storm coming. That's good for us. Once the weather hits, the cops will have to interrupt the search." He gave her Seb's pills.

Jake planned to go west, along the tidal basin. The area was sparsely populated, and there were no roads to speak of, only paths through the sandy dunes. It would be hard and slow and he would have to walk the bike most of the way. They wouldn't be able to cover a lot of ground fast, but it was doubtful they would run into any road blocks. Jake put two gallons of water in the trailer, packed the food in a bucket, gathered candles, a lantern and matches, a screwdriver and a hammer from Amato's locker that he hadn't sold to Sam, and the shoes retrieved from the dead man in the car. He slipped a knife in a sheath on his belt and put the dead man's wallet in a pocket of his windbreaker. They would need the money; they had little to trade. Cathy was on her side in the trailer, the broken leg propped on blankets.

The night was quiet, with only a sliver of moon occasionally visible between heavy storm clouds. Jake rummaged among boxes, found a tarp, and used it to cover Cathy. He pedaled the length of the driveway and paused to listen. This was the time of night when even the thieves were asleep. He turned right, away from town, and took a dirt path between two houses. An old man spent the night in that alley, sleeping in a cardboard box. Jake heard the snores from ten yards away. The path was narrow; the trailer cleared the box by an inch. The snores never varied. Jake silently recited words of gratitude from one of his mother's poems.

He was happy to breathe in the stench of slimy algae from the tidal basin. He muttered: "We're at the seaside." Cathy didn't answer. The pills were working. Pushing the bike through gravel and river rocks mixed with sand and debris washed ashore by the storms was tough going. "We'll be on hard sand soon," Jake whispered. He was glad he pocketed the drugs; Cathy would have felt every bump. Progress was smoother at the tide line but Jake was soon coated in sweat. When the storm broke, he welcomed the rain.

The sun rose in a murky sky, its pale rays filtered by clouds as ragged as a thousand-year-old shroud. They were out of the tidal basin by then and on a long stretch of beach that curved gently north. They could keep going for another couple of hours before having to leave the water's edge to hide in the dunes. Jake remembered seeing a map in Sam Robichaux's shop. There were villages beyond the dunes, in the flatlands, but no major town, and hills further north, then mountains and the great plains, grass for thousands of miles. It would be a miracle if they made it that far.

It rained heavily all day and Jake busied himself with the bucket, collecting water. Cathy begged him to hide under the tarp with her. If he sat in a corner, she could fit between his stretched legs, with her back leaning against his chest. It was weirdly intimate.

"Will you sing one of your prayers? They remind me of church when I was a little girl. We went to that big cathedral, and the monks were singing, and my heart went up into the tall tower and into the sky, so high, higher than the orbiter."

Jake had never seen a cathedral or a monk. They didn't exist anymore, not for at least a hundred years. "When was that?" he said, and his voice caught a little. He wasn't sure he really wanted to know.

"I don't remember," Cathy said. "Please, sing."

"All days are nights to see till I see thee, and nights bright days when dreams do show thee me," Jake chanted. He liked the cadence, like a circle closing upon itself. He flushed when he realized it was a love poem and it was the first time he thought of Cathy that way.

She looked up at him, smiling. "I think I know where that comes from." She threw him another line: "Now is the winter of our discontent," and he completed the verse to her utter delight. "Arrows of outrageous fortune," she said, and he replied with the monologue from the beginning.

"If only I knew what it meant," Jake said.

"Have you ever heard of William Shakespeare?" Cathy said. "He wrote poems and plays centuries ago. He was famous. Your mother must have owned a book of his works." She chuckled. "There are worse books to live your life by."

At sunset, they set off again along the darkened beach. It had stopped raining and the sky was clear, crowded with bright stars. They stopped when the orbiter passed above their heads and waited till it faded over the horizon. It struck Jake as a bad omen as if this unblinking eye could spot them, and he pushed the bike with renewed energy. They rested during the day under a small battered lean-to and Jake rigged a small pole and line. He caught fish. That would make their food supply last longer but he worried about water. He shouldn't have. A monster storm came raging from the north and battered the coast for days. Water for drinking and bathing was no longer an issue. Keeping warm was. They took cover in a pine forest. Progress was easier on the pine needle-strewn floor than on the hard sand, but the trees leaned dangerously and thunderous crashing told of the storm's devastating power. There was no difference between day and night. Hours were uniformly dark.

They were down to their last can of tuna when they reached the village, ten small cabins gathered around a large barn. Jake wanted to trade in the hammer for food but the woman who was in charge of the community told him to keep it. He would need it to help repair the barn that was their only strong shelter. The storm was getting close. It was snapping trees as if they were toothpicks. The village needed all the help it could get. The arrangement was agreed with a handshake. Jake and Cathy had found a home.



The weak signal was spotted by a weather drone badly battered by the storm. The device was hovering along the foothills, and was right above the village when it transmitted its crucial information. Analysts aboard the orbiter studied the data. Major cities along the coast were in the direct path of the destructive storm. Authorities on the ground begged for help with evacuations. Thousands had died already and millions were at risk. The powerful AI that parsed the data separated the anomalous signal from the weather information and forwarded it to the appropriate department. It was a coded blip from a security chip. The chip was embedded in the ID card of Agent John McCluskey who had died in a fiery crash three weeks earlier.



The squad surrounded the village at dawn. Nobody heard them coming. Cathy and Jake were having breakfast in the barn when three heavily armed troopers barged in. A young woman in a crisp dark suit was behind them. She didn't carry a gun.

"You did surprisingly well, Cathy," the woman said, "surviving weeks on your own. Come with us and nobody will be harmed."

Jake stood by the girl, knife in hand.

"You found yourself a knight. Cute. Do you know what she is, young man?"

Cathy found her voice. "Jake will kill me if I ask him," she said.

The woman laughed. It was a clear laughter, not sinister at all. "You're extremely hard to kill, Cathy. What will it take to make you lower that knife, Jake?"

"I don't want to leave her, Ma'am," Jake said.

The woman shrugged. "The storm will flatten this area in a few hours. What do you say, Cathy? We evacuate the villagers, and your friend Jake of course, if you agree to come home with me."

Cathy leaned on the table to get up. She grabbed Jake's arm for support, and looked up at him with weary resignation.

"Let's go, kids. The storm is coming," the woman said.

"Ma'am?" Jake said. "Do you have books on the orbiter?"

The woman frowned, puzzled. "We do, of course. And works of art. Humanity's major achievements, a repository of everything beautiful ever made. You're looking for something in particular?"

Jake sheathed his knife. "I want to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote, Ma'am," he said.

4 comments:

  1. Good plot and main characters. I followed the adventure with page flipping interest. Ending seemed kinda unlikely but upbeat is a good change for dystopian fiction finales.

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  2. Interesting plot with lots of sensory action and unexpected turns.

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  3. Rough future...that prowler is terrifying...yet Shakespeare and pizza still exist, so it could be worse. ;) Glad Jake and Cathy found each other, hopefully their captors treat them well going forward.

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  4. Very good story. I think the world building was very well done. I'm not so sure I agree with Harris that this was an upbeat ending, sort of depends on how Cathy is treated. Thanks for sharing your story.

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