I could feel the smoke seeping in to my eyes, making them water and blurring my vision. The smell of burning lumber and charred metal mixed with the chemical stench surrounding me threatened to choke me and bring me to my knees. I couldn’t let that stop me though. I forced my legs to continue moving, with only one thought burning in my mind. Every footfall sent a searing pain jolting through my entire body but I could finally see her, and I flew across the debris-strewn street. She lay in the middle of the road, her blonde hair the only moving part of her. It looked as if the death-coated wind was trying to carry her very spirit away from her body. I dropped to my knees and took her in my arms. Her bright blue eyes, that were so alive with the thoughts of freedom and happiness, were sinking in to vacancy. “We got pretty close there, didn’t we?” she managed to croak, still with a hint of a smile playing across her lips. “We still will.” I answered her, gripping tighter and willing her to hear every word. “You just need to stay with me. We’ll make it out of this, just like we always have. Come on now.” I began to plead. She reached up and touched my face with her soot-blackened hand. How many nights had I lain awake hoping for such an intimate touch? I could feel her slipping through my fingers, and I couldn’t let that happen.
“Listen to me.” I attempted to be harsh, but my voice broke too easily. “We did not come this far just to stop now do you hear me?” Her eyes began to flutter and slowly close. “We’re going to live long lives after this is over ok? You’re going to tell your 4 redheaded grandkids about this one day. Alright? You’ll tell them about Tane and how you met me. And you’ll tell them all about the mountains and your favorite car.” Her hand fell from my face but I could still feel her touch, tingling my skin. The tears I felt dragging the filth down my face no longer had anything to do with the smoke. had nothing to do with the smoke. I brushed the dirt off of her cheek and began to rock back and forth. “Please.” I begged her. “Please come back, I can’t do this without you.” The pain hit all at once and I couldn’t fight it anymore. A strong whipping sound filled my deafened ears and my vision began to blur from the wind. I slowly let the comforting blackness envelop me, and finally I felt relief.
I watched as the shadows cast by the flickering candlelight in my room danced across the walls, creating a sort of puppet show with stacks of books and loosely hung canvases thrown over the chairs and tables. The light from the flame against the dull grey painted walls dyed it with ever changing oranges and golds that I could watch forever. I had heard of some of the more high born families in Meccan being able to buy some sort of paint that constantly changed color to mimic a flickering light or the rolling ocean. I smiled at the thought of someone spending thousands to simulate candlelight, when most of us couldn’t even afford basic electricity.
That was a pretty typical thing in the Gradient though. There could have times when whole sections of various housing developments went hours on end without power, but I never minded those blackouts. I liked the candlelight. It was one of the few things I enjoyed about having to live there. It was one of the most enjoyable things though, because there wasn’t much else that my dad and me owned that could be enjoyed.
After population became tight in the cities, the poorest civilians were moved out to the old unused warehouse district to rehabilitate what used to be auto-producing plants in to their idea of low-income housing. What they meant by low-income housing, of course, was a 1 room apartment assigned to each person. The rooms had no heat in the winter and, if you were lucky, a small barred window to the outside world. They called this slum, the Gradient.
My father and I were lucky enough to talk our way into rooms across the small hallway from each other, which was good for me when I was growing up. I never liked it in the Gradient though. I could always hear the sounds of my neighbors coming home at night, walking around, screaming either drunken or hallucinogenic obscenities through the flimsy dividers meant to be walls. I still remembered as a small child I would run across to his room at night to stay with him so I wouldn’t be left alone in my room.
Over the years I had come to accept the small box as my home. Packed in like a nameless cargo crate on a transport ship in a warehouse with no power, barely enough government issued food to keep from starving, and no real possessions in the world. At least I had the candlelight.
I sat on the bed, watching the flickering light on the opposite wall for a moment longer, wishing I could keep it that way forever.
The room itself was actually not so unacceptable. There wasn’t much real furniture other than a thin mattress on it’s rusty box spring facing the space on the far wall. A small empty space sat between a beaten up sofa that lost it’s use for sitting on a long time ago, and a desk I had made myself out of spare scrap metal. Just another thing I had accumulated from scavenging, the parts for the desk I found around the old loading docks on the ground floor of my “Apartment building”. Now the couch served no greater purpose than to hold the mess of papers, books, pens and paint, as well as the desk, which has been almost completely covered with a large canvas and various messy art materials. The art supplies had been a gift from my father for my 16th birthday. One of the very few luxuries we could afford, I had forced myself to make them last for two years, but I was beginning to run out. Soon I would have to go back to sketching with the few pencils I could find and the mass amounts of charcoal to be found around the Gradient. There was always something burning here, no one would miss a piece of charred wood.
An old rocker sat alone in the corner, too dilapidated to hold the weight of anything but the fine layer of dust that had settled on it’s surface. The only other things in the room, other than the countless empty bottles and wrappers, were the books. Dozens of them on all sorts of subjects from fiction to literature to how to paint watercolors lay in stacks and piles covering every flat surface that could hold them. They were the most prized possessions I held in the room. I had read each one, no matter what the subject, at least five times each. Books were extremely hard to find, and even harder in a Gradient like mine. All written information in and around Meccan had been digitalized years before I was born and real books became obsolete. My father had told me about them though, when I was a small boy. It sparked a fascination in me, handling the small collection he used to have. Just the feel of a real leather bound volume of information in my hands intrigued me.
The ones I had in my room now were the result of countless searches of the still abandoned townhouses and warehouses around the Gradient. Most were textbooks or manuals that had to do with auto-making, but there were also a few fictional stories I had managed to coax from neighbors in exchange for a few favors or in some cases, just a little bit of company.
I began to think of some of them as my eyes mindlessly wandered across the shifting lines on the wall, when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and tramping closer to me at the end of the hall. I’d know the sound of my dad’s work boots anywhere after years of hearing them come down that same hallway. I’d come to read the footsteps like one of my books and taking in the louder than usual thuds, the sound of scraping hands along the walls for balance and combine it with the late hour, I could tell he was drunk before he was anywhere near me.
In the past few months my father Ethan had slowly been slipping away from me, spending more and more time out of the apartment building, less time at work, and nearly all the money in his pocket at the bar near the Assembly. The Assembly was where trucks would roll in weekly with our rations. It was the closest thing to a town center that we had, if you could call this slum a town. There was a police station where the thugs in uniform known as Polars would cascade from every night, looking for anyone out past curfew or, if they were lucky enough, someone causing any kind of trouble. You would always know when they found one of those sorry drunks, because you could hear him screaming for help in the middle of the night as they pummeled him within an inch of his life. Apart from that was a post office for incoming but never outgoing mail, and the bar.
I assumed that’s where he had been all night as I watched him stumble in to the room smelling of cheap booze and sweat, confirming my suspicions. He righted himself and leaned against the doorframe, staring at me staring at him. We stay this way for a moment, looking in to each other’s eyes, and I suddenly felt very sad. Not just sad, but sorry. The man standing in front of me did not deserve what life had handed him. He lost his wife when I was just under a year old in a tragic accident. He never told me many specifics about it, only that there had been a fire where we were living in the city, and all that was left to identify the body were a few bits of hair. I never really wanted to know more after hearing that. Shortly after the accident, he was shipped out to the Gradient with a toddler to take care of. Looking at him, it almost seemed like he was thinking about the same thing. The look in his eyes, tortured beyond belief. As I watched him, waiting for him to say something, I saw his eyes go from a soft and tender sorrow-filled father, and turn hard and determined. His expression was impossible to read, but for a second he looked up and I saw the same sadness mixed with, what? Fear? Etched across his face in the glowing candlelight for an instant before it was gone again. He straightened up and came to sit down on the bed beside me. He slipped a little and landed with a small thud, shaking the mattress and evoking a nasty creaking from the box spring.
He took a deep breath before starting, seemingly battling with himself.
“Tryst,” he began in his usual slurred voice, but his tone immediately began to scare me. His voice was as calm and still as it would be if he was sober, but that wasn’t what I was expecting. Mentally, I had been preparing myself for his usual hushed but firm rant about how it wasn’t fair what the government was doing to us and how one day we would get out of this hole and live the lives we deserved. As he continued speaking, I realized that is not the case tonight. “Son you know that I love you with everything I am right?” he asked me.
I was already off balance from his tone, and this question threw me completely off kilter. Now I was beginning to worry that he drank way too much as opposed to his regular just too much and he was approaching incoherency. He probably had no idea what he was talking about but I played along to humor him.
“Uh, yeah dad. Of course I do.” His frown deepened, his eyebrows knitted closer together on his forehead. “There are some things Tryst that, well…” he stopped. “Son I haven’t been completely honest with you.” I reached out to touch his arm as a parent might do to calm a child.
“It’s alright dad, really. I know you’re trying and don’t worry. We’ll get out of here soon; we’ll live the good life one day. You said it yourself.” He shook his head
“You don’t understand…” he slurred, shaking his head. “No dad don’t worry I get it. It’s going to be al-”
He was on me before I even had a chance to be frightened. Shaking me and holding my face close to his, seeing the stubble growing on his disheveled and wrinkled face, smelling the liquor on his breath. As young and un-athletic as I was, I could easily overpower him, but fear suddenly took hold and I was frozen, hanging on his every word, staring in to his crazed, and now that I saw, obviously frightened eyes. He had me by each arm with my upper body pinned against the wall.
“You listen to me.” He began in a low whisper, his words had become crystal clear. “And listen well. You need to be strong now do you understand? You’re not a child anymore. This is not a game, and it is not one of your stories.” His voice was growing louder now, but his head was shaking back and forth, almost as if he was fighting more with himself than with me. “You don’t understand, you need to understand! It’s madness out there!” He suddenly shouted. “You can’t do this on your own, the whole world has gone to hell!” All I could do was watch him. He regained his composure just enough to continue.
“Tryst there are things that you don’t understand right now, things that you may not even be aware of, but are going to play a very big part in your life. I thought I would have time to explain this all to you in good time but I was wrong. You have been lied to about a great many things son, and that is not your fault. I should have told you from the very beginning but now it’s too late. You need to understand that it is not safe here anymore, nowhere is safe.” He looked deep in to my eyes and I could feel the weight of each word as it hit me, coated in the stench of booze. “There are events being set in motion that neither you nor I will ever be able to stop, things that are going to force both of us to make some horrible decisions with potentially disastrous consequences. You don’t realize it yet son but these things will plague you. They will be hard, but there are two things you need to know. One is that I want you to remember that everything I do, I do it for you and your safety. That’s what your mother always wanted. Two.” His voice wavered and he dropped his gaze for a moment before resuming. “Two is that I love you with all my heart. You will do great things one day, and I may not be there to see them, but just know that I already know what you are capable of. I have always known. You will be a great leader one day.”
With that, he released my arms and I slumped down against the wall. He got up and left without another word. I could hear him close the door to his room across the hall and I finally let a breath escape me. I sat there for a minute, watching the spot on the opposite wall play with the shadows around the room. I quickly blew out the candles and lay on the bed, trying to will myself to sleep. It was no use, and as much as I knew that it was just another drunken rant, it still scared me. Finally being overcome with exhaustion, I couldn’t escape the image of my father looking up at me, a single tear slowly rolling down his cheek before it disappeared forever and he was gone.