Hours, I stood waiting, hours which felt like days to my knees and ankles. I wanted to scream, but the pain in my joints had reached such a banshee wail, I wondered that others didn’t hear it as well. Despite the best-laid plans, I arrived between three and four am and nowhere near the front of the line. Now, I remained upright by leaning against the wall, a hope and a prayer. Smog-shrouded night, deep dark, so only the wan light cast by the building’s too-high, too-dim lights told me I was not already in my grave. So many people, and yet you could barely see your closest neighbors. But we could all feel the tension growing in the line, which stretched into the distance on either side.
Resigned but impatient, shivering in the cold, people grew restive. Muttering ran from darkness into darkness, like always. Like always, I did my best to ignore it, but its insidious message lodged cunningly in my ear. Until finally, dawn grudgingly transformed the sky from darkness into a sick gray-brown. Honed by the sun’s bleak blaze, the mood darkened to an obsidian edge. We’d all known that a city of people waited with us, but now they could be seen. Clangs, pings and clunks from the pots, pans, bowls, buckets and cups people carried struggled toward a rhythm. Competitive tempos clashed, fluxed in one direction then the other, subtly altered each time they passed me. People scowled, leaned from the line, hoping for movement as the noise, the pounding intensified as tempers flared.
It’s ugly. Fights erupted like sudden collisions, seen only in the final moments, impossible to avoid. Angry cries and curses muffled by the breather masks we all wore. Yet no matter how violently we battled each other, everyone was careful not to damage masks. Anyone who couldn’t follow this unwritten law was dealt with by the mob. If they could, I imagined our mute benefactors wished they could make all of the masks disappear. It wouldn’t kill us all instantly, but fifteen minutes a half an hour later, no more line, no more problem. There’d be other lines in other places; not here, not this city.
It started to drizzle, cooling tempers and providing new purpose. Whatever vessel people brought was held out, hoping to gather any moisture. This water wasn’t potable. It needed to be filtered, distilled and then boiled, but rumors said city water was running low. Unsure when we might get our next ration, true or not, we always came prepared. No matter how little, it was better than drinking reprocessed urine.
A new sound filtered back from somewhere ahead of me in the line. It’s only two words, “It’s started,” repeated over and over again. We can only guess where we are in the line or how quickly or slowly it might move. Tension lifted a small degree. When the drizzle became a sprinkle, actual drops of precious water, eyes brightened. Briefly we looked at those standing near us as people, not competitors, impediments to our own survival. We shuffled our feet as if we believed in sympathetic magic and that this would cause the line to move.
* * *
The rain had long since become nothing but muddy gloom. I slid down the wall and lowered my eyes to shut out everything. Everything except the eyelid movies I cannot escape. Older than most, I still remembered a time before the madness. From the middle of the twentieth century into the early teens of the twenty-first, scientists and people of conscious tried to warn us. Powerful people, wealthy people whose greed and guns protected them continued to deny there were any problems. They insisted there was no climate change, no energy, food or most importantly water shortages not because they didn’t believe the evidence, but because they did. As they watched the world crumble, they built fortified warehouses and underground transportation systems. When it all went to shit, I…
I’d been kicked awake. “We’re moving. C’mon, old man.” One of the women closest to me had chosen to wake me. Perhaps she thought she might learn how I had lasted so long. I owed her a debt and sometime in the future, she’d collect. Her kindness done, she moved away from me in the line. I shook myself and pushed against the wall in order to stand as others pushed past me. I shoved my way back into the line. I had to be willing to fight if I would get anything today. I could still see the woman who had kicked me, about fifteen people ahead of me. I watched her like a beacon of hope as I insinuated myself back into the queue. We moved forward in lock-step, one pace at a time.
I turned the corner at last and could see the blast doors over-mounting the entrance. Six guards, thugs really, waited outside herding the people in line. We tried to surge forward. Until they planned to block access, they relied on machine gunners stationed on the roof opposite. If the guards were out, we had reached the door too late. My talisman, my beacon of hope had nearly reached the door. What a fool I had been. I watched the women duck inside, out of the muggy, fetid air. How could I have let myself fall asleep? Was I just getting too old, too stupid?
I pictured my Samaritan forced to wait and then walk alone on the path left between pallets of goods stack high and far into the darkness. We called this aisle the killing zone. Harshly, blindingly lighted, with guards standing on top of the pallets, weapons ready. How we hated them. They had betrayed us, their brothers and sisters. They no longer had the right to call themselves human, according to many.
Envy’s ugly. I no longer blamed them. I had little enough energy, without wasting it on hate. For a time, they were young enough, strong enough and callous enough to do the work, all for cleaner air, better food and safer water. Like old-time sports stars, they seemed so high above us, yet still mere ants to the people who owned everything. Most despised them as sellouts, but, by God, they wanted what these lackeys had. Most wanted to be them.
Still a dozen steps from the door, the outer blast doors began to descend. Caught up by those behind, I was rolled up in the flood of this desperate human tsunami, We wanted, needed whatever we might have gotten today. It didn’t matter what, it had become essential. The guards violently clubbed the first to reach them, then back away, machine pistols at the ready. They edged quickly inside as the outer doors slammed down.
Fights started as people look from the doors to each other, but they didn’t last. The day stretched too hot and too muggy for any of us to waste what little energy we possessed. I stepped closer to the wall, into shadow, and waited while the other people drifted away. Some turned to glare at the door, but eventually they all moved shuffled off to whatever hole they lived in, heads down and shoulders slack.
* * *
I’d found long ago that despite the shortages and low morale, some people were careless. I moved along the warehouse wall into overgrown brush that would lead me to where the lucky few had exited the building. I pushed through the tangle toward the fence that blocked the building’s egress into a weed and rat infested dirt path only wide enough for two. No one lingered long. Those who did, or those of us who’d tried to get in this way, had ended up in pieces too small to recognize. I worked my way deeper into the bramble quietly, as I tried to disturb as little as possible. Scratched and sweating by the time I reached the hidden hole in the fence which was my target, I felt exhausted. I waited, ignoring the places I itched and the perspiration streaming down my face and body. I took slow, deep breaths to calm myself.
At last, I felt ready and gently pushed aside the thorny hedge that concealed this secret entry. As I reached the fence at last, I shifted to look beyond it. I froze, eyes wide. More than a dozen people lay sprawled in the alley, face down, unmoving. I pulled back. It felt like a trap. I turned toward the building to see what waited there. I spotted the woman who had helped me earlier. She struggled to rise, but stumbled and fell. I notice now, feeble movement from one or two of the others. I focused on the woman. Caution forgotten, I scrambled through the fence, tearing my pants. Utterly foolish, but if there remained any chance to save her, I couldn’t ignore it.
I gently turned her over. Her eyes were open, roving wildly, her breathing shallow. I didn’t think she knew I was there. I lifted her head into the crook of my arm and turned her face toward me. She blinked, focused.
“What happened,” I asked.
“Air.” She gestured feebly toward her mask.
“You need air?”
“Air filters. New ones.”
I took a deep breath and quickly removed both our masks. I pushed and held my mask over her face until she breathed in. After a couple of more breaths, I pulled it away and took another deep breath.
“They had new air filters,” she said. “A more permanent fix.”
I gave her another turn on my mask. Despite it, she was failing.
“They told the last of us that we got to test the fast-acting version.”
I took a breath and moved my mask toward again. She turned away, breathed in large gulps of the unfiltered air. I secured my mask again, picking up hers as I stood and turned away. It felt wrong, but we both knew there was nothing I could do for her. I repaid her kindness by allowing her dignity in death. Her death acknowledged, I would not witness her final ignominy.
I pointedly ignored the other dead, stepping over and around them. No matter what tools and treasures that might have hidden on them, I would not rob the dead, not yet. As I reached the open field that started me on my path toward home, I examined her mask. A viscous, black goo filled the space where the filters sat, dissolving more as I watched. Silently I cried. How I wished I had reached the entrance in time.
Always, people watched me with admiration or envy at my survival for so long. Both seemed to believe it a blessing. I knew it as a curse. Yet my cowardice had always prevented me from taking me life.
I sent a silent prayer of thanks to the warehouse Gods. They had not made our masks disappear, but soon, the same would not be said of us.