The Forty-Seven

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


In the aftermath of society, 47 people struggle to make do in an overturned cargo ship. But they're not alone.

Submitted: August 13, 2018

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Submitted: August 13, 2018

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Word spread quickly that Gavin was back.  Word always spread quickly. At Dinner Meet, forty-five of the Forty-Seven would gather in the lodge hall, eat, and then listen to Gavin's news.  Only those on watch in the Crow's Nest would be missing, and Bette Thomson would take plates to them once everyone else had eaten. This month, it was the Byers' turn to cook. Everyone had learned by now, unfortunately, that Chas Byers had no sense of taste.  It would be another two weeks of over-salted everything before Mrs. Dennings took over the galley. Before Dinner Meet, Gavin would be quarantined in the infirmary, resting and bleeding, poked and patched back together by Dr. Wood and her usual battery of tests.

These were the long nights, the bleary stretch of depressive cold where even daylight feared to show its face for long.  Sundown was just after 1630. Like every night, its arrival was announced by the hammering and rehammering of the all-shut pinging across the network of pipes that snaked their way through each deck of Mother Qingdao's Promise.  Four ... Seven ... Ten times the all-shut sounded each dusk and, as the last pangs of the message beat across Mother's skin, the generators rumbled to life. The universe groaned with the multi-timbral moaning of Pradeep's steel shutter system locking down.  Before 1650, Mother was secure and the generators spun down for the long night.

The savory sweat of stew clung to the air of the lodge hall.  At the far end was the makeshift galley and Chas Byers up to his elbows in forty-seven portions of dinner.  The rhythmic clanking at his side was his son, Ayden, as he bashed mashed potatoes into submission with a monkey wrench in one of the large metal pots.  For her part, tiny Haley Byers was stacking the hodgepodge of salvaged plates on the long folding table. The two simple words "be careful" had become her whole world and Haley was treating each chipped and nicked plate as an heirloom so as not to let down her dad.

Ricardo Ortiz was their first in line.  He was a solid chunk of humankind, six foot huge with an oil drum chest and brutally shorn hair.  Haley handed him a plate directly, a red plastic orphan with a melted edge. Ricardo gave the little girl a head-nod hello that she returned simply by staring at him.

"Chas."

"Ricardo."

"What's on the menu tonight?"

The older man was ladling a spreading brown mix of vegetables and lumps onto the outstretched plate. "Stew."

Ricardo snorted.  "You need meat to call it stew, compa."

Chas gave his huge customer a weak smile and a dinner roll.  He looked tired. "Angela says she's been experimenting and figured out how to make tofu out of the sesame seeds Gavin brought back a few months ago."  Ricardo cursed under his breath reflexively, but caught himself with a grimace and apologized to the two kids for his language before grabbing a fork and moving off towards a seat.  He was halfway done with his meal when he was joined at the table by the current water treatment crew. Gary Keung looked too old for his age. They all did. His fatigued eyes offered Ricardo a half-hearted eyebrow salute as he sat down.

"'Sup, dude."  Ricardo didn't offer an answer. Gary hadn't expected one anyway.  Jim Hickston tried to pull a chair out for his dad, Ollie, but the elder Hickston waved away the help.

"I can get it," he groused. His son rolled his eyes and took the seat directly across from Gary.  "Evening, Ricky. How's Chuck's mush tonight?"

Ricardo chuckled.  "Evening, sir." Ollie Hickston was in his early sixties and both his teeth and voice were stained from years of smoking.  He loved to regurgitate trivia from years past about long-dead people or half-remembered, half-imagined war chronicles from Kosovo. Sometimes Ollie told stories about his wife. Sometimes he simply retold episodes of whatever sitcoms he could remember. Ollie was their link to Before, the desiccated and fading remains of Wikipedia in the sun-spotted skin of an aging old man.

His son was tired of the stories, though.  Depressed and medicated before the end of everything, Jim simply longed for it all to fade away.  He could barely recall anything anymore out of the corners of his cardboard box brain - snatches of sunshine, a few lyrics from the national anthem, how his ex-wife looked in that yellow sundress at ... someone's wedding - but it was all distant, all irised down to narrow points of sentiment that squirmed when he reached for them and blurred at the edges.  Everything else was Mother Qingdao's Promise. Everything else was work and survival, Chas Byer's stew and the morning all-clear. His father's stories were an obnoxious intrusion, vacation slides of a family and a life and a world that no longer existed beyond Mother's walls, and he simply wanted to forget it all and shamble forward.

An explosive caterwaul meant that school had arrived.  Mother's younger children ran for the galley where they greeted the Byers kids with excited smiles and late-day art projects that they had missed by helping their dad prep for Dinner Meet.  Miss Oon trod the meeting lodge's scavenged boards with the older children, a small knot of teens and tweens not yet old enough to shoulder the full mantle of adulthood inside Mother's steel guts.

Behind them, President Keats crossed the room slowly.  He grimaced. He rubbed his temples one-handed. He puffed out his cheeks and loosed a long, slow sigh as he made his way to the galley where he fell in line behind Nick White.

"Hey, Josh," Nick smiled over his shoulder.

"Hi, Nicolas."  Keats attempted to smile back, but it just came off as a thin-lipped smirk.

"Y'okay?"

Keats sniffed and vigorously rubbed both hands through his thinned hair.  When he looked up, he pulled off a true smile. "No, I'm fine, Nick. Thanks.  I'm just ... tired. How's Mother today?" Nick took the bait and launched into an account of the broken hatch on B Deck and the new catch that Hockstendt was welding for him.  The aft pantry's lights had been fixed but replacement bulbs were running low. Ressman had found a shutter panel that had come off of its track and could have been pried open from the outside, but he and Serra had fixed it and so crisis had been adverted.  All of it washed over Keats as unfocused noise. He didn't want to talk with Nick. He didn't want to talk to anyone. Keats just wanted to sit and eat and then get to Gavin's news, so when Nick offered to let Keats take a plate before him, the older man silently celebrated the opportunity to end the small talk and seclude himself with his evening meal.  With dinner in one hand and a chipped mug of Doug Meyer's work-in-progress homebrew beer in the other, Keats seated himself a few seats down from Lyle Dell and at the edge of the lodge hall's makeshift stage. Lyle was busy trying to scrape food into the ancient and unresponsive mouth of Harold Johns.

"Four years in, Josh, and we still haven't settled the euthanasia debate," was all that Lyle offered as a greeting.  Keats didn't respond.

More of the Forty-Seven dribbled into the evening congregation. For two hours, Mother would sit idle as her parasitic tenders murmured pleasantries to each other over Chas Byers' fauxfu stew.  They would share stories about what had been fished out of the purification filters that morning or inform each other about the new door that was on the "permanently open" list due to the failure of another part that would never be manufactured again.  They would distract each other. They would make due. They would continue. They would do whatever it took to myopically focus on the here and soon or the long distant, but not the recent. Never the recent. Focusing on the recent meant they would all clot into a blubbering and suicidal scab of madness only to pick each other apart and bleed out by morning.

After he had finished eating, President Keats sat silently listening to the sounds of Dinner Meet - the scrape of forks, the ripple of mindless table talk, the occasional bursts of laughter or the unruly squirming of the little kids.  He closed his eyes. The room sounded simplenormal. There were odd patchwork memories that he held the sounds up against - the cafeteria at the California Academy of Sciences, the food court at Metreon - but they all seemed quaint and ancient like cartoons from two centuries ago.  The mere concept of a mall was some kind of obscene joke, a grand middle finger stretching across from the have-everything past into the fuck-all now.

A chair squeak brought Keats back to Mother.  Dr. Olive Wood sat down across from the President.  Without a meal, without any pleasantries, she set about rolling one of Pak's cigarettes.

"How is he?"

Dr. Wood shrugged. "He'll survive. This time."  Keats turned his head to the makeshift stage. "He was gone a long time, Joshua."  Keats didn't respond. "I almost gave up on him."

"He came back."  President Keats stared at nothing and idly picked at his fingernails with an arrhythmic pick-pick-click.  "He always does."  Wood ignored his fidgets as she lit the small cigarette with a salvaged lighter and took a drag.

"Did he tell you where he was?" Keats asked, quickly turning to face the woman across from him.  She looked exhausted. Her shoulder length mud-blonde hair was stringy from a lack of enough motivation to shower.  There were stains on the cuffs of her blouse. Some of it was blood. None of it was hers. Dr. Wood exhaled noisily out of the corner of her mouth.

"It's the worst idea you've had yet," she said and started to chew her upper lip.  Keats didn't argue. He just looked back at the stage. Wood rapped her lighter twice on the table top.  When Keats turned back to her, the doctor gave a sharp head nod in the direction of the lodge hall's main entry portal.  President Keats pivoted in his seat to find Gavin emerging out of the steel shadows.

Gavin Marr had scars.  He collected them like merit badges.  Each run he made Outside meant more treasures, more stories, and more merit badges carved into the flesh beneath his makeshift armor.  Dr. Wood patched him up as well as she could, but Gavin liked the scars. Each scraped knuckle or thorn-torn nick in his neck was the tally of another successful scouting run, so Gavin routinely ignored Wood's complaints and picked at his scabs to help them along.  He hadn't originally been the only scout. He was simply the luckiest of the scouts, and outside of Mother's walls, luck meant everything.

In his left hand, Gavin carried two red canvas sacks with black handles.  Two more identical bags were slung over his right shoulder. The bags were filthy, as was everything from Outside.  Dirty scuffs and tears had ruined what were once a set of uniformly carnelian red duffle bags. Gavin seemed to struggle under their weight, but his wrapped right ankle masked the true source of his limp.

When he noticed Gavin enter the hall, little Booker sprang from both his chair and the controlling grasp of Miss Oon and dashed across the floorboards with the same banshee wail of Gavin's name that always made Jim Hickston plug his ears.  Gavin smiled, though less than usual, and moved to set his canvas cargo down on the edge of the stage. He glanced at President Keats, but Keats was staring at his fingernails and Gavin looked away. Without care or consideration, Booker jumped at Gavin for a hug, but the scout wasn't ready for the assault and Booker clung awkwardly to Gavin's arms and slid down his front with the ritualistic cry of "Whatdidyoubringme!"

"Booker! Get off of him!" Dr. Wood barked through a mouthful of smoke.  Gavin was wincing through the boy's hug and Wood hoped that he hadn't torn any of his bandages.  Around the hall, Gavin's arrival marked the end of dinner. Colleen Dowden urged her husband Zach to hurry up and finish his potatoes.  Big Sean wiped his mouth on his flannel cuff. Gio Cielo stole the last bite of his son Michael's dinner roll, prompting a disapproving smack on the arm from Gio's wife and resident laundry mistress, Paula.  Forks scraped plates and last sips were downed amid the chatterbuzz that always accompanied Gavin's reappearance.

Gavin pried Booker from around his legs.  "Easy, scout." Gavin's words snuck out through a wince.  He turned to the battered red bags on the stage and pulled a pocketknife from the depths of his stained cargo pants.  With a flip, the young man extended the blade and set to removing a latticework of plastic zip ties. There was a practiced manner to his knife-work, something halfway between field surgery and field dressing a buck.  "I have something for you," he whispered over his shoulder. Eyes wide, mouth agape and tongue extruding, Booker began to bounce. "But!" Gavin stopped his canvas surgical extraction and turned to face the pogoboy. With one motion, he collapsed the blade and pointed at Booker, palming the pocketknife in the process.  "You have to share."

The bouncing ceased and a mock-pout replaced the boy's stretch-faced grin.  "Promise you'll share?" Gavin was serious, and Booker stared at Mother's floorboards in a gnashing bout of id versus super-ego.  When his eyes met Gavin's again, he stood up straight, nodded honestly and extended an outstretched hand.

"Yes," he promised simply and the scout shook his hand to seal the contract.  Gavin turned back to his canvas haul and finished slicing at the zip ties. After a moment of digging, he extracted two bulging zip-top gallon bags.  They were filthy and pockmarked with wear, but even through the grime Booker could make out the jumbled Technicolor mumble of LEGOs. Gavin held them out before him like two Ziplocked religious artifacts from God himself.  Booker tore them from his hands with a shout of pure joy, chasing it with an endless torrent of "thankyouthankyouthankyous." Intent on keeping his promise, the young boy ran off through the gathering crowd to present his holy bounty before the rest of Mother's babies.

At the edge of the crude stage, Gavin was an apex of selfish hellos. Deena Salto's high-eyebrowed handwringing sought out replenished stores for the pantry.  Requests were made from Marc Ressman as to whether Gavin had remembered just how many requests he'd made for light bulbs. Neil Mott and Ollie Hickston begged for stories.  Had he seen anyone else?  Had he had any more run-ins?  How bad were the nights this time?  There was no waiting for answers, just a mess of questions tossed like celebratory carnations at the only boots to have seen soil beyond Mother's skin.

President Keats stood slowly, sighed, and rubbed his hands through his hair as he took his customary spot on stage.  His scrutiny drifted across the crowd until it found Carole Thomson. The young woman stood flirting with the Hockstendt twins beside her grandmother and it was a moment before he could get her attention.  When he did, he beckoned her over to the stage and then leaned down to whisper briefly into her ear. The girl looked puzzled, but Keats insisted with a “Please.” that wasn’t a request and Carole set off running into Mother’s metal halls.  Keats watched until she disappeared out of sight. Then he simply stared after her for some moments.

"Okay, folks," he announced as he returned to himself and the crowd.  His voice was law. "Give Gavin some room and we'll get started." Most of Mother's residents backed up into a loose standing semi-circle.  Lyle Dell remained seated with his elder charge, attentively wiping stew from the old man's mustache with a ratty handkerchief while his daughter, Catalina, took the seat next to her father and turned it to face the stage.  Dr. Wood remained where Keats had left her, venting spent smoke as she stared at the President with a look that read resigned irritation. At the far end of the hall, Booker portioned out LEGOs like communion wafers to his waiting congregation of playmates.

There was a moment of awkward anticipation.  Keats stood center-stage staring at his shoes in silence while the rest of the assembled stared at Keats.  Brows furrowed. Enquiring glances spread through the crowd amid a peppering of headshakes and shoulder shrugs.

"Uh, okay," Pak Hanli broke the tension.  "I guess I'll start? Where was-" but President Keats raised a hand and Pak swallowed the rest of his question with a frown.

"We're still waiting for Cameron and Jennifer to arrive."  Keats' proclamation sparked a rolling murmur through the crowd.

“Whoa.  What are you talking about, Josh?”  Chas Byers stepped forward. “You … you’re gonna pull the Crow’s Nest down?  At night?”

“You can’t do that!”  The bark came from either Kim Todd or Colleen Dowden, Keats hadn’t seen which, but shouts of agreement rose up around the group.  The President waved them down with outstretched palms.

“I’ve already sent Carole to get them.  We’ll be fine, but I need to speak with everyone.  All at once.” The crowd shifted uneasily and disquieted.  Some people took to the nearest folding chairs they could find.  Dinner plates were moved to the center of tables. Flatware was organized for the dish crew.  Gavin sat cross-legged on the edge of the stage, absent-mindedly picking at his newest scabs. Small conversations smoldered across the group, but nothing louder than guarded pockets of minor insubordination.  Debbie Levine drifted away from the rest of the greenhouse crew to watch over her daughter, Jackie, as she built a replica of their sleeping quarters out of LEGOs. When Jackie smiled up at her mom, it was with an untroubled and unaware virtue that nearly made Debbie cry.  She swallowed hard, gave in to a flurry of blinks, and then tight-lipped a grin as she rubbed her daughter’s back in loving Zen-like figure eights. At a nearby table, Sara Wray bowed her head in prayer. Pradeep Narang checked his salvaged watch at the sound of running feet in the adjacent hallway.  At 1922, Carole jogged back into the lodge hall.

“They’re coming,” she panted and motioned over her shoulder before rejoining her grandmother.  It was two more minutes before Jennifer and Cameron emerged from the shadows of Mother’s halls.  Cameron Fulton was tall and slight. His body was all limbs and nose, long piano fingers and a face dominated by eagle beak nostrils.  Jennifer Murin was a good foot and a half shorter than Cameron, but she carried herself with a bull terrier's gait. She wore her camo cargo pants with equal parts military conviction and punk bluster, something reinforced by the scarification on her arms and the eight-gauge plugs in her earlobes.  Both carried his and hers sniper rifles slung over their shoulders. They strode into the hall as if everyone else had been unfashionably early. In his right hand, Cameron suckled a pipe and trailed blue smoke behind him like a wounded jet.

“Okay, they’re here.”  Chas Byers stood with his arms folded.  “What’s this all about?”

“Jen.  Cam. Can I have your weapons, please.”  The guard pair shared a glance, but handed the rifles over to Keats without a word.  The President walked the twin rifles towards the back of the stage, propped them casually against the far wall, and then returned to address the rest of the Forty-Seven. “In these bags- No, wait.  Let me back up.” Keats crossed his arms and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Two weeks ago, I asked Gavin to go Outside and make his way to Sacramento.”

A long “holy shit” filled with extra vowels slipped from Gio Cielo’s mouth until Paula smacked him on the arm.  Gavin couldn’t contain a small grin of pride.

“Was it still there?” Pradeep asked and Gavin’s grin faded.

“No.” The President said bluntly.  “Not really.” There was silence. “It’s the same as across the Bay.  Some buildings stand, most don’t. The fires took almost everything.”

“What about the, uh–”

“Devils,” Sara Wray spat.  Patrick Hockstedt rolled his eyes.

Gavin simply nodded and held up his bandaged arm as proof.  Chas Byers sat down. There was a mournful stillness.

“Gavin was scouting for the usual,” Keats cleared his throat and regained control of the conversation.  “Scrap, bulbs, fabric, whatever. And he has some of those things. Deena, we’ll go over the list later.”  Gavin picked up the open canvas bags as an indication for the pantry mistress and set it apart from the others.  Here the President sighed. “But he also had another task.” Keats locked eyes with Dr. Wood, then looked down at Mother’s salvaged floorboards before continuing.  “I also asked Gavin to find the state Registrar of Voters office.”

Confusion washed across the faces of the audience.  “And I asked him to bring back any of the voting information he could find from the last election.  Whatever was left. Whatever he could salvage, if anything.”

Donald Serra shook his head in pure bewilderment.  “I’m sorry, what? What the Hell does this have to do with anything?”

“Blame, Don.”  Dr. Wood exhaled loudly.  “Josh wants to know who he can blame for the end of the world.”

A confused hum of “whats” and “what are you talking abouts” bubbled across the audience.  Dr. Wood only motioned with her cigarette towards Keats who stood grim-eyed and stoic. His nostrils flared and his frown congealed into a hard knot.

“This is how this is going to work,” Keats said quietly.  He continued staring at the floor. “We’re going to all sit here – together – and I’m going to go through these bags.  If you voted for … this,” he gestured to Mother with a sneer, “then you’re out. Simple as that.”

"What do you mean by 'out,' Josh?" Pradeep investigated.

"I mean just what I said, Pradeep," Keats snapped at Mother's engineer.  "Out. Gone. As in: you gather up your things and go Outside. If you don't want to go on your own, then Ricardo or Neil will help you leave."

"Hey, man, don't bring me into this."

"Oh, you don't want to do your job, Neil? That's fine.  You can join them Outside."

The big man shot to his feet.  "Jesus Christ, Josh! Fuck! Okay, fine!"

From her chair beside the threatened enforcer, Mrs. Dennings placed a steadying hand on his tattooed arm.  "Joshua, maybe you should take a few deep breaths and think about what you're saying."

"You think I haven't thought this through, Janet?"  A murderous edge overtook The President. "I've thought about this for years.  I am so sick of this shit. I'm sick of the depression.  Sick of the mourning. Mine. Yours. Everyone's. I'm sick to death of waking up every goddamn day inside of this capsized rusting tub in the middle of a mud hole!  And every dinner - every dinner! - every time I pass someone in the halls I wonder 'who was it?' Whose bullshit politics was it that put me here? Who's small-minded, short-sighted shit was it that murdered everyone in the fucking world?!"

The President smashed one of the canvas bags with his foot and stormed off to the back of the makeshift stage.  There was silence inside of Mother. Couples clung to each other. Heads were bowed. Tears fell from cheeks to mark jeans amid stifled sniffles, but there was silence.  Mouthed prayers mingled with cigarette and pipe smoke in the steel rafters. At the back of the stage, Keats stood with his back to his nation, his fingers laced atop his head.  At the far end of the hall, LEGO building continued mutely.

There was a creak of Miss Oon’s chair as she stood to her feet.  “Josh, maybe I should take the kids back to the-”

“No.”  Keats spun to point at Lily’s chair.  “No one leaves. Everyone watches.” He punctuated each sentence with a firm finger-point and Lily Oon sunk back into her chair with her eyes closed tightly.  Keats strode back to the front of the stage, his footsteps striking with gavel finality until he stood beside Gavin.

“Alright, let’s do this.  Open the first one.”

The young scout glanced at Dr. Wood only to find her staring at the rifles on the far wall.  With an almost imperceptible shake of his head, the pocketknife came out again and the surgical zip-tie removal resumed.

It wasn’t long before the second bag laid splayed open onstage.  Gavin removed stacks of smoke-damaged papers and arranged them in tidy piles beside the bag as if sorting organs from an autopsy.  Bundles emerged of brown rippled paper clotted together in the remains of melted plastic bags and ash smears. Everything was garbage, the warped and wrinkled husks of a thousand scribbled Scantron bubbles.  Keats sighed.

“Is this how you found it all?”

“Mostly,” Gavin replied as he continued his unpacking.  “The other two bags were untouched. This one was open originally and I crammed as much as I could find into it before I zipped it back up.”  More garbage emerged onto the stage. “I didn’t really know what you’d want to see so I tried to get everything.”

Keats bent down and picked up a random pile of refuse.  Beneath the grime and the wear, inked votes freckled the pages with useless data.  Nothing was labeled. Each page presented him with shifting constellations of felt-tipped marker spots, the indecipherable pictograms of ballot measure results and selections for county supervisor.  Years ago, before the world had burned to the ground and the night belonged to slaughter, a computer had scanned the dots, run them through its Rosetta Stone of computational programming, and spit out a logical translation of outcomes.  Somewhere far Outside, that computer was now a melted heap of silicon slag. All that remained were the dots with no way to connect them. The President threw the sheets back into the bag with a curse.

“Well, that’s all trash.”  He ran his hands through his hair again.  “Let’s try the next bag.” As Gavin laid bare the contents of the third bag, it was immediately apparent they were in considerably better shape.  Plastic bags were intact and held neatly organized collections of paper results. Plastic anti-static sleeves had dutifully protected computer vote cartridges beyond the end of the world.  Day-glow orange vests, a clipboard and pen, and two functional flashlights had slumbered safely in their canvas cocoon for years. Gavin set the treasures aside in the provisions bag meant for Deena Salto.

Keats squatted on the edge of the growing pile of government minutia.  There was a three-ring binder full of instructions for pollworkers. The President thumbed past the clip art cover page of a faceless suit cheering on the celebratory masses of a victory rally.  Above his head were two giant words that proclaimed it to simply be called “The Guide.” Littered among the myriad of grayscale photos and checklists were nuggets of useless wisdom:

 

During the day, you will leave the Audio Unit unattached until a voter requests to vote an Audio ballot.

You will connect the Audio Unit before the voter inserts the Voter Card. Remember to disconnect the Audio Unit when the voter has completed voting.

 

Hours of someone’s life had been devoted to perfecting these instructions.  Committees had tweaked the wording until they had found the perfect balance between clarity of message and simplicity of language, a manual for the lowest common citizen denominator to read and master without question.  Bosses had spellchecked and approved its use for pollworkers, supervisors, equipment, voters and a world that were now all dead. Keats tossed it off the stage with a snort. Kim Todd flinched.

When he had finished laying bare the third bag, Gavin sat staring at Keats, one hand scarring scabs.  Keats sifted through the pristine garbage. There was a roll of “I Voted!” stickers that he knew would be plastered at child-height throughout Mother’s hallways within a week.  There were trilingual signs ordering now-skeletal residents to “VOTE HERE”. The President stared at the ghost of a generically Asian language he assumed to be Korean, but it could have been Vietnamese or Indonesian for all he knew.  Whatever it was, none of Mother’s children spoke it so it was effectively a dead language.

“French is a dead language,” Keats mumbled to himself.

“Sorry, what?”

The President looked at Gavin for a moment without seeing him.  He was preoccupied with scribbling countries off of a mental map of the world.

“France,” he said at last.

Gavin blinked.  “What about it?”

Keats shook his head to break up the fog of memories.  He ran his hands through his hair. His fingertips lingered lightly on his brow.

“Joshua…” The sound drifted from Mrs. Dennings’ mouth like a quilt.  Keats immediately tensed. Rage flared his nostrils and returned clarity to his eyes.

“Are you done yet?”  He didn’t let Gavin answer.  “Where’s the last bag?” The scout set to filleting the fourth bag without argument.

In the growing pile of civic debris, The President of Nothing found twin deceased cellphones.  He handed them to Gavin. The children could play with them and pretend there were other ears to call.

In a plastic bag, President Keats discovered an American flag.  Heads craned forward in the audience to get a better view. Laura Cornell began to cry.  At the sound, Keats glanced up at his survivor nation. All eyes were fixed on the cheap Chinese-made banner crinkled within his hands.  It was as if he had uncovered a holy relic, as if Gavin had brought back the consecrated skull of Saint Elvis Aaron the First of Memphis.  It was seven bars of Corvette Torch Red emblazoned across Marilyn’s dress. It was NASA and American Idol against the blue glow of a dead cable channel.

He wadded it up and handed it to Gavin.

“Burn this.”

“You son of a bitch ...” Ollie Hickston shot to his feet.

“Dad, please.  Just sit down.”  The younger Hickston cradled his head in his hands.

Dr. Wood sighed around her cigarette.  “Josh, we could use the fabric at lea-“

“I said burn it.”

Eyes shut, lips pursed and eyebrows raised, she exhaled the smoky remains of the rest of her objections.  The older Hickston punched his chair over and stormed aimlessly off to pace Mother’s makeshift lodge hall.  Keats ignored him.

By his feet, Gavin had just placed on the stage a long mottled brown book.  On its front cover were typed the words “452200 – Fire Station 11 Side A, 14903 Catalina Street, San Leandro CA.”  President Keats snatched the book from the ground hungrily and tore into its pages.  Inside was a sprawling list, sheet after sheet of names and addresses, party affiliations, signatures and notes.  It was a list of the ghosts responsible for the end of the world, and Joshua Keats beamed from ear to ear.

“This!” he shouted as he pounded the list and stood to his feet.  “This is exactly what I’m looking for!  So…” He began pouring over the pages.

Bines, Marshall – corpse

Bines, Tammy – corpse

Boland, Kim – corpse

Bolstridge, Meredith – corpse

This was going nowhere.  There were hundreds of dead names in this book from only a single precinct.  It was a log of victims and traitors, a time capsule dedicated to petty party-driven suicide and the closest thing any of them would ever have to a marked memorial.  Keats’ breathing intensified as he read.

“Was anyone from San Leandro originally?” he asked loudly into the book.

For a beat, there was only thinking and lip biting.  Then Marc Ressman spoke up.

“Um, I think … uh.  I think Nuñez was from San Leandro.”

Keats looked up at the maintenance man.  “What precinct? Did he ever say?” There was pre-panic in his eyes.  Ressman looked pained.

“I – I dunno, man.  I … No. I mean, no.  He never said. I mean, who knows what precin-“

“Fuck!”  Keats tore through the book’s pages, ripping some in the process as he dug his way deep into the Ns.

Noyce

Nugyen

Nugyen

Nugyen

Numan

Nuncio

Nuncio

Oakes

“God damn it!”  Pages of the book came away in his fist and he threw the ghostlist at the back wall.  “Fuck…” The word was just breath and the exhalation of hope. Keats stood with his arm resting atop his head as he stared into the rafters of Mother’s inverted ceiling.  “Gavin, will you please see if there are any more of those books?” His voice was a creak of loss and depression. On the edge of the stage, the young scout began sorting papers into piles.

“Looks like this is it.”

Keats turned to face one more book.  He held it lightly, staring through its cover, through its pages, desperately willing it to contain a target for his anger.  “Three-oh-three-four hundred,” he prayed aloud. “Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School Gym. Ten-Eleven Chestnut Street, Alameda.”

“Oh God.”

President Keats’ head snapped up to glare at his tiny straggler nation.  It wasn’t hard to find its source. All heads were turned towards Colleen Dowden.  Colleen’s mouth and nose were hidden behind her hands; but her eyes were terrified-wide and staring into empty space.  Twin tears rolled down her cheeks to pool at her fingertips.

Keats heart beat a smug victory dance in his chest.  There she was. He didn’t even have to check the book in his hands.  There was the face of treachery and hatred and filth and death and the flaming skin betrayal of the end of the world.  But it was better than just that. There was the beatific face of betrayal itself betrayed. He looked her all over, as if really seeing her for the first time now: her jeans, her dirty tennis shoes, her t-shirt – the uniform of the repentant wolf hidden among the remaining sheep.

“Is there something you’d like to tell us, Colleen?”  Keats couldn’t hide the pornographic joy in his voice.  He chuckled. He chuckled right in her crying face as her shoulders trembled with sobs.  Zach Dowden rested his head against hers, his hands white-knuckled as he clung to her shirt.  Nothing happened for a tortured infinity. Sorrow hung thick in the air. Zach clung to Colleen as Keats watched her cry.  The rest were forty-four isolated lumps of embarrassed nothingness shrinking into their skin in their chairs in their hall in their inverted rusting Mother.

Colleen mumbled something.  No one understood her.

“What?”  Keats looked like stone.

Colleen smeared the sadness from her eyes with the palms of her hand.  “What happens now?” she croaked. Her despair was an ugly mess of mucus and tear-matted hair.

There was a slight shake of his head and a finger-splayed shrug.  “Now you leave,” he said. Keats sounded like stone. A rolling wail washed up out of Colleen’s guts and she clawed at her husband.

“You can’t do that!”  Tears stained Zach’s cheeks and the shoulder of Colleen’s shirt as he raised his head to confront The President.  “You just can’t … you can’t do that, Josh! For God’s sake, Joshua, we’ll die out there!”

“Lots of people died out there,” said the stone.  “Everyone died out there.”

Again, Colleen tried to speak, but the words broke apart into a dribble of consonants in her hyperventilating grief.

The President sighed and scratched his hand through the top of his hair.  “Colleen, I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”

Zach burned with fury.  “She said ‘But I’m pregnant.”  Somewhere nearby, someone cursed.  Keats turned his back on his nation and paced aimlessly around the stage.  His fingernails picked at each other furiously. Without warning, he spun to face Dr. Wood.

“Is that true?  Or is this just some cheap attempt at self-preservation?”

Wood’s laugh sounded like a slap in the face.  “Eleven weeks,” she said. “I wasn’t going to say anything until they cleared the first trimester.”

“Please, Josh.  Stop. This can’t go on.”  Mrs. Dennings sat cross-armed beside the weeping Dowdens.

“I dunno.”  It was Nick White.  “Maybe Josh is onto something here.”  Immediately groans of derision spread throughout the group.  “No! No, hear me out!” Nick shouted over his detractors. “No! I mean, yeah.  Hell. If she voted for those assholes, then maybe she has to live with the consequences.”

“Shut the fuck up, Nick!”  Jenn Murin kicked him hard in the shin.  “What the fuck is wrong with you?! Colleen’s one of our engineers.  You want to kick her out and make Pradeep the only one keeping Mother from rotting around you?”

“Well …” The interjection came from Lyle Dell.  “Catalina could do it,” he said and gestured to his daughter beside him.  She recoiled from him with a dismissive cry of “Daddy!” “Well, you could.  I’m just saying. You’ve been apprenticing for a while now. Pradeep’s even told me it’s about time to think of making you one of the crew.”

“This is insane,” said Pradeep.  “This is insane! We are not going to have a calmly reasoned discussion about throwing a pregnant woman and her husband out into the Outside.”

“That I agree with,” said Keats as he pointed to Pradeep.  “There will be no discussion about it. It’s happening. Period.”  Objections and arguments exploded in a volley of crosstalk throughout the lodge hall.  Insults flew. At the back of the hall, Haley Byers covered her ears. Booker, meanwhile, bounced up and down, tugging relentlessly on the sleeve of Don Serra and shouting for the adults to stop shouting.  At last, the gruff canon of Ollie Hickston’s voice thundered the cluttered air.

“SHADDUP!  ALL A’YA!”

They did.  Booker stopped bouncing.  Tears stopped falling. All forty-six heads turned to look at the old man.  He stood with his hands on the back of a folding chair. He hunched like an old ape, tense and deadly, ready to tear something apart in order to still prove his worth.  His eyes bored into President Keats’.

“You wanna do this, son?  You think you’re so tough?  You don’t know the first thing about tough.  Tough is humping it across a torn up hunk of crap that used to be a Serbian sheep farm and not knowing if you’re going to get shelled or not.”  With an impressed smirk, he pointed at Gavin. “That kid knows tough. You?” Here the elder Hickston shook his head and laughed something that sounded like a phlegmy sneer.  “You’re nothing. You don’t know squat, Josh. You wanna know who voted for all of this? I did.”  Gnarled fingers thumped on his chest.  “That’s right. I did and I’d do it again if I was back there.  Yes, they made mistakes. You live long enough, son, and you learn this amazing fact: you learn that everyone makes mistakes all the goddamn time.  And when other people make mistakes, those around them have to live with the consequences. So. You want to act big and bad and burn my flag and threaten a pregnant lady?  You’re a coward. You want me gone? Fine. But I’m it. I’ll play your little coward’s game, Josh. But I’m all you get.”

Keats glared back at the old man and, for a moment, nothing moved.  Even Mother seemed to hold her breath. With a snap, the old man banged his chairpodium in under the table before him and began walking towards the sleeping quarters.  The metal clunk rung through the rafters.

Ollie stopped as he reached the hallway.

“I don’t suppose I even have to ask if you’re coming?”  His head turned over his shoulder to stare at his son. The younger Hickston was doubled-over in his chair, elbows on knees, eyes in palms, still as a corpse.  His father simply nodded slowly as he walked into the darkened bowels of Mother’s metal halls.

In less than ten minutes, the generators would spring to life and ratchet up the shudders.  The lights, the noise, and the smell of canned humanity would draw immediate attention Outside.  But then Pradeep’s shudders would be drawn back down and locked and the salvaged lights would go out on Mother Qingdao's Promise’s resting place as quickly as they had come on.  Inside, the Forty-Seven would scab over and continue, and tomorrow they would talk about the tomorrow of the coming baby, and lie to themselves about the good of the good old days.  They would do whatever it took to focus on the here and soon or the long distant, but not the recent. Never the recent.


© Copyright 2018 Jesse Harlin. All rights reserved.

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