"Ever been scavenging before?" Frank asked as we both emerged from one of the many access tunnels that led to Mariposa.
"Not really," I replied somberly.
"Why so glum?" He asked as the evening sun began its decent into the ground making the sky turn a wicked shade of dark orange.
"I'm just not sure how I feel about this," I replied half-heartedly.
"About what; scavenging?" He paused to adjust the grip on his gun and tug a bit on his hat. "Aww… don't be nervous. Ain't nothing out there worth gettin' all balled up over. The worse things to watch out for are the rats…"
I stopped him from talking because it was not the rats or any other environmental factors that had me concerned. "Frank… isn't what you do like… stealing?" I finally asked.
"Stealing??!!" He loudly boasted. His laughter was a bit high pitched and made me quite nervous as he wiped a few tears from his eyes and caught his breath. "Oh sonny," he managed to blurt out between the final bits of laughter, "you had me going for a bit. Stealing!!! That is the fuckin' funniest thing I think I ever heard a surfacer say."
"Really," I asked confused.
"Shit… yeah. Look, there is nothing I have ever took back to Mariposa that anyone would miss. Frankly… most of what I find is left behind, rotting and forgotten. Some of it is discarded because it's broken, or those stupid Trujillo's stole it from somewhere and its awful fun to annoy those idiots. I'd figure that you would misunderstand what some of us stand for down in the hole, but I'd never think you would consider us nothing more than common thieves."
"I didn't mean to offend," I started to apologize.
Frank started laughing out loud again. "Please," he pleaded as he tried to catch his breath once more. "I live in an underground bunker and carry 'round a shotgun with a name. Social contracts aren't really my thang. I'm pretty sure offending me is damn hard. Besides I was just pulling your nuts for fun."
"I'm out of my element huh?"
He quizzically looked at me. "I'm not sure what you mean by that, but I'm guessing you don't feel like you fit in here?"
"Not so much."
"Aww… maybe scavenging ain't your cup of joe. Ever talk to Morty? He might find you something more up your alley."
"It's not the scavenging. I just haven't figured out exactly what my purpose is. I have a life, but no real reason or desire to have it. I feel lost, a little worthless. Does that make any sense?"
Frank scratched his beard a second while he thought of a response, "Can't say that it does, however I'm gonna shoot from the hip and guess that you are torn between two opposite ends and cannot make a decision on which way to go?"
I was rather surprised he could context how I was feeling so well, I assumed his intelligence was below average and talking to him was about the same as talking to a brick wall.
"Eh… something like that," I said bewildered.
"You know… not as clueless as I come across," he said matter-of-factly. "I know I don't always use proper phrases and stuff. I also don't remember a lick of math past five times two is ten and the last book I read I believe was a geography book from sixth grade which was more than twenty years ago; but I know when a man is conflicted. What's your story anyway?"
"It would take about 170 pages to cover," I said jokingly.
"What?" He asked puzzled.
"I made a literary joke," I started to explain but decided against clarifying any further. "Never mind… It's a long story, but I suppose I could shorten it up a bit. Do you really want to know?"
"We have a mile or so before we get to the dump, might as well pass the time with a long chat," he replied cheerfully.
As we walked along a deserted dirt road and nightfall set in, I explained some of the recent events of my life. Frank walked along side me the whole time and simply listened to my story while nodding once in awhile to acknowledge he was still listening. Finally, as the stench of the dump reached our noses, I summarized the last year of my life like this: "I was given a gift, both of talent and a devoted soul mate and I walked away."
"Is that what you wanted?" He asked.
"Maybe… I always thought so, but when it was at my fingertips… ah well… the gate is locked. How are we getting in and what are we looking for?" I said quickly, hoping to change the subject.
Frank busted the lock off the dump gate with the butt of his shotgun and made his way inside. "We are looking for anything of use. Why don't ya just let me look around and you help me lug back whatever I find."
We spent the next couple of hours digging through trash and finding bits of scrap metal, some unopened cans of food, a few discarded pieces of machines and other various items. Eventually, the light we were using to search for stuff was starting to dim and Frank decided it was time to head back.
"Here grab this bag… you got it?"
I flung the bag over my shoulder but underestimated its weight and when it came down and hit my back I lost my balance and fell over, toppling down a large hill of trash and landing with a thud between two large items that closely resembled old chest freezers. I heard Frank yell for me, but I had lost my breath and could not muster a peep. My trip down the trash mound must have alerted someone else, because off in the distance I saw multiple lights flashing around and the sound of dogs barking. Frank skidded down the hill, ignoring the goods he had found and attempted to help me up.
"Are you ok?" He asked as he pulled me up.
Gasping for air, I pushed him away and told him to get the goods and get moving. I fell to one knee while still trying to catch my breath as Frank remained at my side hoping to help me get moving.
"Dammit Frank… get out of here!" I shouted as he started running back up the hill to grab what he found and I watched him run out of sight. Moments later, several locals who were searching the dump as well converged on my location. I was still trying to catch my breath when a big dog circled me and started barking loudly to signal my location. Two other men finally found me as I stumbled to my feet and tried to run away.
One of the men managed to trip me up and held me down as I tried to scurry away. "Whoa… where's your stash?" The unruly man asked as he held me down with his foot. "No stash," I managed to say between heavy breaths as the big man's foot was cutting off air flow to my already depleted lungs. I was not sure if the dude slowly choking me was buying my story but I did not really give him a chance to think about it much. He started looking around and signaled his partner to look for the sack I lost control of when I took my fist and nailed him squarely in the balls. I found I was growing tired of his foot on my throat and wanted to make him hurt for a while.
The big man stumbled over and cried out in pain as I took in a huge breath and tried to stand up. The companion who was still searching for the sack heard the commotion and tried to come by and help his friend in agony. I managed to stumble to my feet and grabbed a hold of the sack and was slowly climbing the hill when I heard him give chase. He was inches from grabbing my heel when I heard a shotgun blast and felt buckshot whiz past my head and struck the pursuant in the chest. He quickly dropped and rolled down the hill in a flowing river of his own blood. I spun around and barely saw Frank standing above me keeping his gun pointed downhill and motioning to hurry up and get over the hill.
"Fuck!" I screamed, "You shot that guy!!"
"So?" Frank quipped as he pulled me over the crest of the hill and toward the fence.
"Stop moving," I commanded as I tugged on his jacket and pulled him to the ground.
"Are you stupid… we gotta go already!" I heard him shout.
"Seriously... You killed that man! What the hell?" I asked angrily.
Frank got up and dusted himself off. Quickly, he pulled up and pointed his shotgun within an inch of my forehead. The heat from the previous discharge was starting to welt my skin as he pumped the handle to load another round. "Do you think this is just a nice stroll in a friendly suburb? We ain't the only folks trolling these dumps looking for whatever we can find. I don't want to add you to the mix, but I'll blow your fucking head off if I have too. We have to move. Ok?"
I grabbed the bag and started to run in the direction of the fence. We managed to clear the dump and started our way back down the dirt road we used to travel here. The entire way back to Mariposa, none of us spoke a word. We walked for miles in darkness and complete silence.
When we reached Mariposa, Frank bumped into me and I shoved him off rather aggressively. Nearly losing his balance and falling head first into the floor, he managed to catch himself and regain his balance. "Ooohhh… I've had enough of your shit already!" I heard him grumble as he prepared to throw a punch. I threw my hands up to hopefully block the coming blow but Morty stopped him short. "Dammit Morty… lemme smack his dumb ass around! He nearly got us killed tonight!"
Morty steadfastly stood his position and would not let Frank play out his anger. "Frank… I think it's time you got some rest. Your wife is waiting," he said calmly.
Frank continued to pull his hand in an attempt to free himself, but realized Morty was not going to let go. "Why protect him Morty? I don't get it… this kid has some twisted death wish and he nearly took me with him. I'd rather grant his desire instead of dying with him. Just let me poke his eyes out!!"
Morty pulled on Frank's arm which dropped him quickly onto the ground. "There's no killing here. I think its best you simply walk away, now." Frank's body went limp as he licked his upper lip and took in a deep breath. "You can't protect him forever, if I don't kill him… someone up their will." Frank whispered as he stood up and dusted himself off.
As Frank walked away, Morty grabbed the two bags we brought back from the dump and headed over to one of the common areas where people sort through scavenged goods. He set the bags down on top of a pile of others and then slung one of his hefty arms over my shoulder. "Mind telling me what happened tonight?" He asked quietly.
"That lunatic… shot and killed someone for no good reason. He's a murderer… a crazy sociopath… I… I," I began to stutter because the image of the man riddled with shotgun holes and blood spattering everywhere; some of it still on my clothes and limbs overwhelmed me and I started to sob.
"Never seen a man die?" Morty asked.
"Yes I have." I said while regaining my composure. "I just never seen one murdered in cold blood."
"I'm sure Frank's actions weren't in cold blood. The guy he killed, he was chasing you?" Morty asked calmly.
"He was a punk, looking to take what we found. My life wasn't in any real danger. We would have gotten away," I responded forcefully.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Sure? Are you nuts? Worst case… we give him the goods and we both walk away," I answered confidently.
"That's not how this world works," Morty replied in a surprisingly tranquil voice.
"Then educate me… how does this world work? Lemme guess… I give him the goods; he then kills me for treading on his corner right? Or is that part of the dump Mariposa's territory and we just can't share any garbage so it's up to maniacs like Frank to shoot all trespassers on sight? Are you seriously telling me that no matter what I or Frank does… the only option is that someone dies? Did you people just crawl into this hole and revert to some kind of prehistoric barbarian race of dimwitted people who are ok with just blowing others up with no consequence?"
"Come with me," Morty gestured as I finished my rant.
"Why should I?" I asked angrily.
"You clearly do not see as others do and only with your own eyes will you understand," He slowly started walking away.
Disheveled, I followed Morty half way across Mariposa to a part of the town I had yet to visit.
The room was large and the smell was dark and ominous. It was not particularly rank, just off enough that taking a whiff caused tremors up and down my body. The smell literally shook me to the core, as if to warn not to proceed further. It was poorly lit, and there were a large number of boxes lined up along the walls and laid out in the middle of the floor which made navigating the room a little challenging. We scuttled past a couple rows of these boxes and then stopped in a small opening that held the rooms only light source; a large collection of candles that surrounded a memorial of some sort. Taking a closer look, it was a memorial of people who have died in Mariposa. Years of deaths were recorded here and all around were these poor people's final resting place. Morty brought me to their cemetery.
"Great… you brought me to the graveyard," I retorted sarcastically.
"Look here," Morty commanded. He pointed to a small epitaph that was written on a box right next to the memorial. 'With love, we will always remember you brother, for your dedication, your love, your sympathy and compassion. Mariposa will miss you, but no one will miss you more than your little brother… thanks for everything you did for me, your memory will always help me push on. - Frank'
"So what's the lesson Morty? Are you going to tell me that Frank shoots first because someone killed his brother in cold blood? My daddy beat the shit out of me when I was a kid, I don't believe that gives me the right to harm others simply because I was hurt. There has to be limits and rules."
He let out a sigh and responded, "Have you ever lived your life outside of modern society? Have you ever tried to truly survive in a place more hostile than anywhere else on earth? Frank… he's a little zealous, I'll give you that… but he was once like you. He fought like hell to have peaceful relations with any outsiders, whether it Trujillo or not… and when his older brother finally broke under Frank's idealistic views… it killed him. Right before Frank's eyes, he watched his brother throat slit open by a Trujillo he was trying to bargain with. I ain't saying you, or even Frank back in the day were wrong… You just have to understand who we are playing against. You talk about rules and limits… those are great things if everyone around you also plays by them. In our case, in Frank's… there are no rules, there are no limits. I would love to build this society on peace and diplomacy. I would love to be able to bargain and live in harmony with people on the surface, but I have come to the realization that the people above will not bargain. They will not let us live in peace, nor will they share. It's not perfect John… nothing is. For Mariposa to survive, we need those goods found on the surface, we need to leave the comfort and safety of these walls. Everyone who lives here knows that when you step past the gates, the only rule is survival."
"So why stay? If life is so dangerous here… why not return to modern society?" I retorted, confident my words could pierce his argument.
"Answer your own question John. You have been here for a couple of weeks now. Your wounds are healed up; nothing is really stopping you from returning to the society you speak of. Yet, you remain down here… arguing semantics with me. You experienced the danger; you know the risks… why do you stay here?"
"Is that why you sent me out with Frank? You could've just asked me to leave."
"John, I did not send you out with Frank so you can see the downside to Mariposa and decide to leave. I sent you out with Frank so you could experience balance."
"Pfft… balance? Watching a guy blown to bits isn't really my idea of balance," I replied sarcastically.
"John… your world view is skewed. When you first came to Mariposa you were surprised at everyone's generosity and kindness. As you healed, you only saw the caregivers; you ate food from the gardens prepared by our cooks and shared tall tales with the witty and informative. You never saw the underbelly that makes it possible, the men and women who sacrificed to make this place a reality. Even your old society, has a darker side that balances it out. For you to truly understand life, especially your own… you need to understand and experience balance."
"Wait… how do you know I am seeking to understand my own life?" I asked perturbed.
"John," Morty said softly as he set his hand on my shoulder, "A man who tries to take his life, takes it not because he feels overwhelmed or because he feels hopeless. He takes it because he doesn't understand it. People live miserable lives, lives that would make us baulk and sick to our stomachs to watch it; but they do not kill themselves because they understand their purpose and find meaning in their life. By having that understanding, they can even find happiness in what appears to be total despair. People down here, they live here because it helped them find that balance, it helped them find meaning and purpose and in turn it helped them find happiness. None of that comes without a price. There is always a price for any life you live, in any society you live in, for whatever joy or pain you feel. Some call it karma; others call it fate, what name you give it hardly matters. It exists on all levels of every person's life and without an understanding of how it governs the very essence of your soul; you will never fully appreciate every breath you take. You do not want your life to end, I know that… but at the same time, you are lost as to why you want to live in the first place. Nothing makes sense to you right now and I want to help you find reason."
"What should I do?" I asked quietly.
"I don't know John. Each person finds the answers they are looking for in very different ways. I do know, however, that to begin the search requires you to leave behind everything you think you know and embrace your existence for what it is, instead of what you perceive it too be. Whether or not you choose to stay in Mariposa, or return to the life you had a few weeks ago is irrelevant. How you view your life from now on and whether your mind is open to a new viewpoint will make all the difference. I've learned in my life that answers are usually not hard to find and never more than a glance away. Sometimes, all you have to do is open your eyes and acknowledge their existence."
I thought about what Morty had said. My life has hardly ever made any sense to me. Throughout my existence I often found myself questioning every aspect of my life, to why I had to eat and sleep all the way to why my penis had to be between my legs. Disturbing… I know, but in my mind I always thought things could be better. Things would be better if I could just get to other side of this fence, on the opposite side of the door or across the great chasm with the narrow broken bridge. Whatever the image, the effect was the same. I have never been satisfied with what was. I was always clamoring for what could be; even if what could be would never actually exist. Morty was telling me that I had to start living in the present if I was ever going to find happiness and meaning in my life.
"I'm not sure how to let go," I said distraught.
Morty put his hand gently on my back and started walking me out of the cemetery. "It's not about letting anything go. Your experiences, your memories, they all make up who you are now and who you will eventually be. The goal isn't to purge and start over. The goal is to put those many loose pieces together to form a whole person; one who isn't broken and fully understands and is willing to accept his position in life. It's about finding balance in a life full of extremes, or finding order in chaos. Whichever one suit you best is fine with me. Don't lose yourself in the process of finding yourself… just take one step at a time and see where life takes you."
"Do you think I should take my first step here? Or maybe return to my old life?" I asked, knowing full well I already answered my own question.
"I think you should do what you want to do, your cot isn't going anywhere… but I suspect your old life is right where you left it. Look into your heart and just listen and feel which choice brings out the greatest desire. Some say the heart will lead you astray, but those people are generally the ones most lost in their lives. Rationality and logic is great at explaining how things work and avoiding emotional pitfalls, but intuition is the key to understanding one's own needs and wishes. The only person, who can answer that question, is you."
"Thanks, Morty," I said as I headed off in the direction of Frank's camper.
"I had a feeling you'd stay. Don't tell Frank I showed you his brother's coffin… he still blames himself for his death," Morty requested.
"I won't… but I should apologize. The man has saved my life twice. He deserves as much."
"That he does… You're a good man John; don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
I nodded as I walked away. As much as I wanted to reject Morty's compliment, this place has a strange way of twisting my old viewpoints and beliefs around into something… dare I say… better? It is too soon to tell if that is the case, but I actually found myself walking toward Frank's home with the intent of apologizing for my actions. I still think what he did was wrong, but not quite as wrong as an hour earlier. The longer I stay here, I will probably find what he did was heroic, even admirable. I do not believe my core beliefs have ever been this unstable.
Suddenly, I started seeing things through a different set of colored glasses. I could barely believe how dissimilar things were becoming, constantly warping and shifting right before my eyes into something unlike anything I have ever seen. I could feel my heart beat in my chest and it was not fear or anger that drove it. If I had to guess, I would say it was passion; something I do not believe I have truly felt before.