A week passed by, measured in sweat and malaise. The dead bodies piled up like tally marks, counting out the hours Moe and Billie toiled for the lives they didn't want. Well, a life that Moe didn't want. Billie seemed like she didn't particularly enjoy her situation, though she never complained. And when asked about it, she usually spouted off some sappy words about the futility of dwelling on the negative aspects of life. If Moe didn't know better, he could see Billie being a new morale boosting tool–some brainwashed innocent, chemically lobotomized into complete and utter submission by and for The System.
As Moe hurriedly approached the building his home unit was located within, the rains began to fall. Piercing through the wisps of smog that drifted around lamp posts and out of darkened alleys, tiny drops of acid bombarded the ground that in some places was pitted blacktop or sidewalk, and in others merely dirt and hardy but sickly weeds.
By the time he dashed into his building, Moe could hear at least one of the materials of his patchwork jacket just barely beginning to sizzle. Normally, the acid rains were pretty weak; though it wasn't unheard of for some drunk fool to fall into unconsciousness outside, and wake up covered in second degree burns, provided they woke up at all. Still, it was rare for the rains to be that acidic, requiring of the clouds that they hovered over Salt River long enough to absorb a toxic mixture of hundreds of different chemicals and pollutants.
Usually when it rained, it was a welcome relief, carried in on a gust of air from places more serene. The air in Salt River would be briefly scrubbed, and occasionally it was even possible to see through the haze that was the sky, and glimpse for a moment the magnificence of the sun.
Moe climbed the creaking stairs, his knees occasionally popping in protest, and made his way up to the home unit that was eerily quiet since his son was taken. Breathing heavily when he reached the top, Moe went to unlock the door. There was a problem, though.
The door was closed, but looked like it had been kicked in. The area around the knob was a splintered mess.
Moe pushed open the door, and immediately Rachel was in front of him, shouting. “They took her! They took her!”
“Nina?” Moe asked, fearing the answer.
“When I wouldn't open the door, the Officers broke through! They said Nina was selected by some Elite.”
“Selected for what?” Moe asked, dread squeezing his chest and churning his stomach.
“They wouldn't say!” Rachel bawled. “I asked, but they... they... they wouldn't tell me. One of them laughed though. I heard it. It was a bad laugh, a mean laugh.”
Moe gritted his teeth, which perpetually ached because of the sugar rich, processed foods he was forced to eat in order to get enough calories to survive. “Those sons of bitches,” he growled.
With a quick swing, Moe punched the nearby wall. He barely missed a sheet of tin, scraping only his thumb against it. His fist instead broke through a thin, water damaged section of pressboard. “I'll kill them. I... I...” Moe's words drifted off while his eyes drifted toward the small wooden box next to the miniature stove.
His thoughts piling up like debris damming a storm drain, Moe pushed past his crying wife. He snatched the box off the floor. As he sat down at the rusty table his family had once eaten their meals at, Moe reverently placed the box on it's scarred and chipped surface. He opened the splintered chest, its hinges creaking, and plunged his hand inside.
From the shadows within, he removed a plastic bottle containing a dozen little white pills, each one imprinted with the logo of The System. Their use was highly encouraged, though not mandatory; because, as with most matters, The System had a way of making people believe they were in charge of their decisions. Nonetheless, nearly everyone in this city consumed the same tablets–which were said to be cooked up in the basement of System Hall, by men and women with access to technologies that lowly workers like Moe could never dream of.
With the swallowing of one pill came relaxation, a pleasant forgetfulness, and a surge of ecstasy; Moe poured out a single pill.
Two brought about sleep, aided by a paralytic imparted in all System made drugs to ensure one person's drug use didn't become a problem for anyone else; he poured out a second pill.
Only the suicidal took three or more; he poured out the remainder of the bottle, not sure what he was doing.
Moe stared at the happiness in his hand; he longed to swallow his way to oblivion, but was too scared to actually do it.
Rachel charged across the room to Moe, and slapped the pills from his hand. They hit the ground like hail, scattering and bouncing. Beginning to feel the numbness which followed emotional shock, Moe stared dumbly at the floor composed to wood, carpet, tile, and plastic.
Rachel bent down and picked up two pills, handing them to Moe. “Please,” she said, “just two.”
Slowly, Moe raised his head. Looking at Rachel through eyes filmed with tears, he said, “But my daughter is a... she's being used for... and there's nothing... nothing I can do.”
Placing the pills in her husband's hand, then closing it around them, Rachel said: “Just two. I'm going to clean up a little, then I'll join you. Tomorrow will be... better.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don't know,” Rachel said. Then she turned away. “Oh, and don't forget, we get our food allotment in two days.”
For a brief flash, Moe thought it odd that Rachel reminded him to do something he'd been doing every week for their seventeen years of marriage. Then, he thought of all the repugnant acts his precious daughter was probably already being forced to take part in.
Moe opened his hand, and quickly tossed the pills in his mouth. Not wanting to wait for his stomach acid to dissolve them, he bit into the chalky tablets, releasing into his body and mind a bitter chemical respite from all things real.
Moe awoke after twelve hours of blessed unconsciousness, when the dim lights in his home unit flickered on, then off, then on again; and at the same time there came a sound, from a speaker of the public address system located right outside Moe's home unit, a sound like rusty bells chiming through static.
He jumped up from the flimsy kitchen chair, the muscles in his legs cramping violently from the sudden movement. Gingerly hobbling around the small room, trying to loosen up his knotted calves, Moe remembered what drove him to sleeping at the table.
But quickly, he tried to force all that out of mind. When the PA system went off, the tonal pattern had sounded like the second of three signals–each acting as incremental warnings of the approach of the work day for roughly one third of the city's population. He usually liked to be out the door by the first signal, having no desire to risk a gruesome end over a couple extra minutes sleep.
Moe would have liked to say goodbye to Rachel, the only person he had left in this miserable life, but she was evidently in their bed, like a normal person. Considering the punishment for being late to one's assignment, Moe didn't dare take even the time to go and wake her.
Running out the door that no longer locked, Moe took the stairs two at a time, and at the bottom bolted out the door that wasn't sturdy enough to keep out a child. As he wove his way through the labyrinthine streets like a rat in a maze, he counted the passing posters as a means of keeping track of his progress. And though he was running too fast to read them, he knew their words by heart, could recall every detail of the propaganda that appeared more frequently than windows in this hodgepodge city of beat and broken souls.
Cast upon an abysmal field of black, silver script declared in bold: “FREEDOM IS KNOWING YOU'RE PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER.” A ghost in the abyss, the symbol of The System glowed green behind those words. And if one looked close enough, they could see that the symbol was composed of a thousand smiling faces–which were meant to represent workers like Moe. Whenever he saw or heard the motto of The System, Moe always felt like it was only half completed, that it should actually be: Freedom is knowing you're part of something bigger, and knowing there's nothing you can do about it.
Sixty posters passed, Moe turned a corner, and left behind the rat trap that was most of the city. Here, the ten buildings surrounding System Hall and the garden were maintained as they were before the war, before bombs fell like spring rains all up and down the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Each building now acted as private residences for one of the ten Elites in this sector of city. The tallest (at ten stories) belonged to The Mayor.
Most of the city looked like a painting Moe had seen once in an art book, during his brief schooling, by a man named Picasso, where random shapes, colors, and lines made an ordinary woman into a grotesque caricature of a human being; but in the heart of Salt River, these few buildings were faced with brick and stone, with gargoyles, wrought iron, and other decorative features that seemed to belong together. And though he desperately wanted to stop and catch his ragged breath, which now tasted of tarnished copper, it was no time to admire the architecture. Even as he ran, the stitch in his side throbbing, the third and final signal crackled out from the aging PA system.
From each door that he passed by, the Officer guarding it stood suddenly at attention, rifle at the ready. They all seemed disappointed upon realizing they weren't going to get to gun down a crazed deficient.
Moe ran to the front of System Hall, wheezing and nearly limping by this point. The Officers out front nodded that they knew Moe, and let him pass unmolested; the Officer inside probably knew Moe as well, but nevertheless grabbed him like he was a disobedient cur. While the scanner placed on his neck buzzed and heated up, the Officer said to Moe, “You were nearly late.”
“I'm sorry,” Moe said, not sure why he was apologizing. Officers, like the one clutching Moe's hair, were considered slightly less expendable than the other lowly workers; but still, they were slaves in their own sense, only possessing built up egos and a false sense of duty.
“Get out of here,” the Officer said. He yanked Moe by the hair and threw him down the hall, toward the door to the garden.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Moe ached his way down the long hall. He exited the building, and stepped into the nightmare garden that grew only decay. From across the yard, he could see Billie already at work removing the first strange fruit of the day.
Instead of approaching, Moe went to the single tool shed, and retrieved a heavy steel tank with a nozzle attached. With a grunt and a sigh, Moe began to pull the hundred pound tank on its much too small wheels, over dirty and rocky terrain torn free from countless storms and scuffled feet.
When Billie noticed Moe, she stopped dragging the body in her hands and ran over to him. “What's that?” she asked.
“Here, let me help.” Billie pushed Moe's right hand aside and added her strength to moving the rusty tank.
“Thanks,” Moe said. He took several breaths as they continued to move toward the north end of the garden. “This is some chemical, I don't know what. We use it to keep the trees alive, since they get no light and little rain. You've probably noticed those spouts on the trees. The way they were explained to me was that... oh, hell. Wait a second and I'll just show you.”
At the top left corner of the garden, the farthest point from SYSTEM HALL, Moe set the tank near a crooked tree that could only support three pieces of fruit. He took the nozzle and screwed it up into the corroded spout. “This switch here”–he flicked it from off to on–“starts the pump. It's weak, so as not to hurt the trees too much, so it takes a while, but I was told it was like 'taking sap from a tree to use for syrup, only in reverse.' It forces the nutrient rich solution into the tree, helping to keep it alive. It also has something in it which helps to boost the trees ability to photo... photo-synth-something. I don't remember, but it means the little bit of sun the trees see gets put to good use. These trees will never look like the ones down at Recreation Park–you've been there, right?”
“I think so,” Billie said.
“You think so? It's the only spot in this city with green trees and grass, the only place under an atmosphere dome.”
“Oh, yeah, of course. When I was a child I couldn't pronounce recreation, so I called it Reckation Park. My parents used to tease me, and it just sort of stuck in my mind that the place was called Reckation Park. Hey, what's that sticking out of your pocket?”
“What?” Moe looked down at his tattered pants, and saw an equally tattered piece of paper poking up from one of his usually empty pockets. “I don't know,” he said. For some reason, his heart began to beat faster. Somehow he knew this was related to last night (which in all the excitement he had forgotten about, until now), and there was nothing good that could come of that.
Hands trembling, he pulled the note free and unfolded it. As he read, his stomach dropped out from under him, and he felt like he was going to retch. This all seemed so unreal. He needed to sit.
Before she could grab him, Moe slumped against the tree and slid down. Above and behind, the nozzle and spout junction began to leak the nutrient slurry in a gooey, bubbling dribble. Billie turned the pump off, then knelt down before Moe. In a soft voice, she asked, “What's wrong?”
“My... my wife. She came down here last night, intent on asking questions.”
“Why would she do that? Didn't she know what happens to those labeled curious?”
“Yeah. I guess she didn't care. We, uh... lost our daughter last night.”
“My god, I'm sorry.”
“She was...” The sickness welled up in Moe, and though his stomach was empty, he retched several times before getting himself under control. After wiping his mouth of spittle and bile, he said, “She was selected...by some Elite. And everyone knows what that means. Now she's being–”
“Shh, shh. It's okay.” Billie wrapped her arms around Moe, who accepted graciously. “It's bad, but at least she'll have free medical care, and clean food, and clothes. It's not a great life, but it could be worse.”
“I... I guess that's true. But it's not going to bring back Rachel.”
Billie bit her lip. “Yeah, well... nothing I say will matter now. You need to take your time to grieve. But don't lose hope that tomorrow could be a better day. That's the only way that I can carry on.”
For another minute Moe allowed himself to cry, while Billie held him and stroked his greasy hair with her filthy fingers. Then, he pulled himself together. The last thing Moe needed was for an Officer to walk by and judge his public outburst as grounds for immediate neutralization from the System gene pool. With a weak smile and a nod, he motioned to Billie that they should get up.
“Thanks,” he said, dusting himself off, “but we should get back to work.”
Fruit fell and nutrients flowed. Occasionally, the swollen sun was visible as a bloody wound seeping through the dirty bandages of the smoky clouds, its progress the only marker of hours past. The day was spent mostly in awkward silence; Moe not knowing how to feel, Billie not knowing what to say. Then, something horrible happened.
As they were passing by one of the trees near the east fence, a familiar shirt caught Moe's eye. It was made from three bedsheets, tailored by hands that knew what they were doing. It was definitely a rag, but it was barely that, almost a nice piece of clothing, really.
“No,” Moe said. He fell to his knees, staring up at the slowly turning body that was once his wife. Her face, a pale smear of bruised and suffocated flesh, was twisted with agony; it barely looked like the one he had loved to kiss. And her ghoulish eyes, they stared down at him with the vacancy of the dead. “No, no, no, no, no. I... I can't... Look at what... Why?”
Billie darted between Moe and the body, blocking him from having to see his wife in such a terrible state. He was more than relieved. “I'll take care of this piece of fruit,” she said. “I think it's–”
“No,” Moe nearly shouted. “I'll do it. It's the least I can do for her. One last act of dignity for the woman I loved. She deserved that much.”
“You sure you don't want–”
“Please, just go.”
Before she left him alone, Billie said, “I'll check on you in a bit.”
When she came back to Moe, he had already carefully lowered Rachel's body from the tree. He'd even moved her toward the gate, where the truck waited to reap the fallen fruit, and laid her separate from the rest.
Here, without a single word, Billie walked up and began to help. Together they transferred the bodies from the stack piled high like firewood, up the ramp, and through the open back doors of the truck. They made quick work of the ordeal.
The rest of the harvest complete, there was only one piece of fruit left, waiting to be handed over to a man who looked like a troll, and smelled like a gravedigger.
Moe knelt down at Rachel's head. With gentle fingers, he lowered her eyelids for a final time. Knowing the last vestige of his life was about to be taken from him, he bent and kissed her forehead. His tears fell on her face, carving ruts into the dirt and grime as they slipped from curve to haggard curve down her head, temple, ear, then neck.
Whispered so quietly he could barely hear himself, Moe said, “Goodbye, love.”
He looked up at Billie and nodded. Together, they carefully lifted Rachel and moved her into the truck, laying her with as much dignity as possible at the top of the pile.
As soon as he let go of Rachel's arms, Moe turned away. He couldn't bear the sight of his wife attracting flies, high queen of the stinking dead. Even the brief sight of it, burned into the back of his eyelids, drove him staggering off the truck. Moe collapsed on the ground, and dry heaved painfully.
The sound of Billie slamming the truck doors, then rushing down the ramp after him, vibrated to Moe through the dirt like thunder. Before she even knelt down and put a warm hand on his shoulder, Moe could hear the truck begin to rumble away.
By the time the growl of the wretched hearse faded from his hearing, Moe was starting to gain control over his stomach, which seemed like it was trying to purge some foul poison. And it was, he supposed, though he knew the poison now in his soul wasn't one that could be evacuated by something so simple as vomiting.
Moe sat up, wiped his mouth, and tried to speak. His throat was raw, his voice cracking, and he tasted a bitterness on his lips that was more hopeless sorrow than bile. He managed a ragged: “Thanks, let's get out of here.”
Together, they headed inside. Billie went first.
As soon as she opened the door, a hand grabbed her matted hair. The scanner was pressed to the back of her neck. Moe watched her face as she grimaced in pain from the heat produced.
Then, he was grabbed and treated similarly. He made no reaction, barely felt the burning.
When the scan was completed, the Officer said to Moe: “You're wanted upstairs.”
Moe looked over at Billie, as if to ask for help. But he knew there was no helping him. Already in the span of a day he had lost his daughter and his wife, taken each by a different part of The System, just as his son had been taken a week prior. How much worse could it get?