Dawn was a haze of fire behind a sky smeared with the souls of fifty-thousand laborers, burnt up as fuel for an economy they otherwise had little to no involvement with. The day became no less ominous, as storm clouds stacked up behind the uncountable smoke stacks that rimmed the horizon like prison bars. To the laborers of the city, the oncoming storm was apparent only because nearly everyone's aching joints stiffened as the atmospheric pressure changed, and because thunderclaps accompanied the unseen clouds. Distant at first, they progressively became louder and more frequent, shaking the ramshackle city right down to every ancient nail sunk into splintered, wet wood or corroded metal.
Having lost Moe to reassignment a week prior, Billie performed her duties as best she could. Being new to the assignment, and going from assistant to foreman in the matter of a couple days, she was having trouble keeping up with the heavy workload. No matter how hard she tried, it seemed like she missed a couple bodies each day. By the end of her first week, System Square smelled almost as bad as the rendering plant she was assigned to before she was made responsible for the picking of strange fruit. Almost.
By midday, the unseen clouds overhead could no longer hold their rain. Billie was dragging a body across the dismal yard, when all at once–following a peal of thunder–the sky opened up, and a torrential wall appeared in front of her. Seconds later, the wall of rain was upon her, then past her, drenching everything in its wake, turning the dusty ground into a sodden mess.
During heavy rains the sparse streetlights became like dying candles, glowing weakly, providing only negligible light. And with how strong the rain was this day, those lights faded so greatly that Billie was forced to squint in order to make sure they were still on.
Its clothes now soaked, the body in Billie's hands became that much more difficult to move. And to make matters worse, if she stopped to rest, or wipe the water out of her eyes–which picked up grease, sweat, and ash as it passed through her matted hair–the body began to settle into the mud. She once lost a shoe in mud as a child, and had no desire to lose a body. If she did, no doubt she'd be the one digging it up tomorrow, its top half exposed, bloated, liquefying from the damp, acidic soil.
She struggled with the body, her eyes burning from sweat, but eventually got it to the fence near the gate. Relieved, she took a moment to relax. Though the rain was cool, it felt good. So much of her life was spent soiled from head to toe, that any clean rains were a welcome relief. For a day or so, she wouldn't be completely itchy from the filth she was made to endure.
It was tough, but she tried to always take a moment to appreciate the little gifts of grace, and victories over brutality. If she hadn't learned that skill from her parents, she would have gone mad long ago. Life was difficult for everyone, but never more so than when one ignored the good and focused only on the bad.
Much sooner than she would have liked, Billie forced herself to get back to the task at hand. If she dawdled too long (aside from being verbally and/or physically assaulted by an Officer), she would fall even further behind, eventually being reassigned. And as far as assignments went, this one was pretty good. It was tough, but it wasn't the hell that Moe had made it seem, with his slumped shoulders, defeated eyes, and flat, monotonous speech. She did like the guy, from the short time she knew him, but he was a downer.
Could she really blame him, though?
Walking across the yard, rain streaming down her face, she tried to whistle a tune to keep her spirits up. Unfortunately, the rain impeded her attempt, causing only bubbles and stunted, harsh sounding notes to leave her lips. Instead, she hummed, and tried to follow a particularly bad stench to its source. She really wished Moe had a chance to explain his system better, but supposed she would just have to develop her own.
As she walked, she watched black soot melt off the trees like wax off a slowly heated metal rod. The ash ran down the scarred bark, bleeding black pools all across the yard. “Yes,” she said to the trees, “let the rain wash away all that nasty–”
Billie stopped dead, unable to take another step. Hoping her eyes were playing tricks on her, she stared, unbelieving, then rubbed them with her palms.
But when she looked up, she still saw what she dreaded most in that moment.
Hanging from the tree to her right, Moe's body spun slowly away from Billie, until his back was facing her. “No,” she said. “It can't be.”
Grasping at anything the way a drowning man would, she desperately tried to rationalize the situation away. And it was true: the rain had distorted the features of that particular piece of fruit, and the lighting was no better than it would be at midnight. So maybe it actually wasn't him. There was a chance. The man in the tree just looked like Moe. That was all.
She took a tentative step forward, bit her lip. She really hoped that it wasn't Moe, despite the feeling in her stomach of intuitive dread. And if there was one thing she learned in her years, besides the importance of appreciating the positive, it was that her intuition and instincts were usually right.
Reaching out toward the dangling leg, she drew her shaking hand back as soon as she touched the mud-caked fabric.
Billie grimaced, then forced herself to continue. She had to know. She would just find out eventually, anyway.
After a deep breath, she grabbed the pant leg, and spun the body away from the tree, toward her. As she did, the sick feeling in her stomach only intensified.
When the strange fruit was facing her, there was no doubt of its identity. Stunned, she stood there in the rain, holding the pant leg for half a minute before letting her hand fall numbly to her side. She hadn't know him well, but it always hurt when someone she did know wound up dead. She'd lost her parents, her child, several friends, dozens of coworkers, and the list continued to grow with every year.
Billie sighed heavily, said a silent prayer, then shook her head. At least she knew which piece of fruit she would be plucking next.
But as she went to take a step, she realized there was something sticking out of his pants pocket. Just barely, a tiny triangle poked up and out of the patched up denim, leather, and cloth.
She looked around, then reached toward Moe's pocket. When her fingers touched that protruding triangle, she knew it was paper.
Slowly, carefully, she removed the scrap. Fully exposed, it was a square, folded in on itself several times. Intuition told her it was a note, and that it was for her. But there was another reason she felt the need to read it.
Her name was scrawled upon the paper, the ink already beginning to bleed.
Using both the tree and her upper body as an umbrella and windshield, she bent forward and unfolded the note. Even so, the paper quickly absorbed several drops of rain, smudging the ink and making it run in places. She would just have to read the hastily scribbled words quickly. Even if she put the paper in her pocket now, it would only continue to absorb water as it bled Moe's final words into her pants, into oblivion.
Billie, don't have much time. Can hear search dogs barking down the street. No doubt drones are on their way, ready to dive out of the sky and attack with chemicals or electricity. Plan was to escape to Phoenix, remove my chip, start new life. Huddled in this building abandoned to a System renovation project, I know I'll never see that future. Also know my body will find it's way to you. Hopefully this letter as well. I wanted you to know you were right. Freedom doesn't come from without, it comes from within. Only when you choose to free your mind are you truly free. Even with death approaching, I am free because I choose to be. Thank you for teaching me that.
She shook her head, a weak smile on her face. Earlier, she had wished Moe would have been around longer, to show her his system for which piece of fruit to pick; now, she wished he had been around longer, for an entirely different reason.
Moe seemed to have found personal freedom for himself, sometime before or during an evidently harrowing ordeal. That was fine, and she was happy his last moments weren't spent thinking he was a slave as he had once accidentally mentioned, but it still made her sad, almost guilty. He was right, freedom does come from within. But that doesn't change the world around you, doesn't change your place in it. You can't just leave The System; you have to learn to work around it, behind it, moving freely in the periphery of your own enslavement. Any direct confrontation with a monster is still a fight with a monster.
“You were a good man,” she said aloud. Billie then ripped the note again and again until it was confetti, dropped it at her feet, and ground it into the muck. As she did this, the rain began to taper off, the storm's rage spent.
Billie looked up to see the clouds part. It had been a long time since she'd seen the sky. Today, it was deep, sapphire blue.
Continuing toward her next piece of fruit, she watched as the sun appeared, swollen and golden and beautiful. Though the day had started as all days did, miserably, and only gotten worse with the news of Moe's passing, at least she was granted this little bit of serene majesty. She had to take a moment to appreciate it, even while there were tears of sorrow in her eyes.
She just had to, otherwise she would go mad.