Sunday, January 4, 2009

Bethlehem (Full Story)

The last winter that time recorded started just like today, with a sky so bleak that you couldn’t tell where the earth ended and it began. It was the last winter I spent with my family in this same apartment, staring out this same window watching fat snowflakes fall. The last winter that would ever matter.

But it doesn’t matter today. Today I need food and things to burn. It’s light enough to start looking, but without the sun I can’t even guess the time. The sky is so thick and so gray, the city street so empty and muffled by snow, that it feels like I’m stuck in someplace in between.

My gloves might as well be fingerless, and my sweatshirt needs mended again, but on a day like today, I don’t have time to worry about them. I slide my news-papered feet into my father’s old work boots, tuck what paper I have left inside my shirt, and slip out the back way of our apartment building.

The Regulators set special times for the rest of us to scavenge. But the batteries in my alarm clock died long ago. I can only hope that I’m hitting that time frame. The street is empty, not a good sign, so I stick to the edges, ducking in between rusted cars abandoned on the streets of Manhattan almost a decade ago.

“You never go out after dark, Jonah,” my big brother Sam always said. Sam never could take his own advice, about anything. But he kept me alive for years after our parents died, so I still listen to him.

The bank just up the street was decorated for Christmas that winter. A lot of the houses in our neighborhood were, but the bank always had the best decorations; the gold lighted star on the roof, the giant wreath on the face of the building, and two smaller ones on the doors. The night the lights went out, it was like someone had snuffed the city right off the map. I bet you could see the blackout from outer space. If the Internet didn’t go out with them, Sam and I would’ve checked to see.

Most of the Christmas lights have been stripped off the walls and used for ropes and things over the years, but the gold lighted star on the roof still stands. It’s why Sam called our block Bethlehem.

I squat behind an old Escalade and listen. “Never stop in the same spot twice, if you can help it. Change it up,” Sam had said. And I do. I close my eyes because I can hear better when I can’t see. The wind swirls past me on both sides, and a piece of sheet metal clangs in the distance. I must’ve hit the right time frame. The Regulators don’t even try to be quiet when it’s their turn.

The soft crunch of my own footfalls in the snow is all I hear as I make my way down the sidewalk. I peek inside the cars and busses, but I know there’s nothing to find. They’ve all been picked clean. Even the bus seats have been removed over the years. But there’s still places to look. Places nobody looks because nobody wants to know what’s in there. Basements. Boiler rooms. Places where the sun never shines.

Up ahead I can make out the gray silhouette of the building I’m headed for. I don’t know what it’s called, or what it was. I was too young to know when the city was alive, and after it died, nobody cared to tell me. But it looks like an old storage building. I’ve been in it a few times with Sam, trying to pick or break through locks to get to whatever might be behind the pull-down metal doors. We might’ve had a screw driver and a flashlight at one time, but I don’t have those now. Still if I’m going to survive this winter in Bethlehem, I need to get inside those doors.

The front doors are broken, no glass left in them at all. I step through the frame, hoping for warmth inside, but I’m not so disappointed when I don’t find it. It’s open in the front room with all the windows broken out. The place I need to go has no windows.

I pass rows of looted lockers, stripped bare by scavengers, most likely The Regulators. All the furniture and clothing, toys, anything that would burn is long gone. My footsteps echo down the lonely hall. I try to catch a glimpse of sunlight outside as I pass an open window, but the sky is still gray. The streets are still empty. No Regulators, but no other scavengers either. It’s unusual, but it doesn’t matter. I’m here already and I need heat. I could probably go another two or three days without food if I have to, but not heat.

I make my way to the staircase that leads down to the basement to the more private lockers. Lockers that had probably cost three times as much to rent as the ones already looted. And these lockers are left untouched.

I pull open the door. The screech of the rusted hinges is amplified by the emptiness of the building and I jump back and duck behind a broken metal chair. Nobody comes after me, but my heart beats its self into my throat. I open the door and look down into blackness. No time to chicken out now. I have to go down there.

I take the stairs in twos until I reach the bottom and I stand there in total darkness, waiting for my eyes to adjust. I can just make out the outline of a door, like it’s just barely lit from the inside, but I know only more dark awaits. I feel along it for a handle. I keep telling myself there will be nothing down here. This part of the building is practically sealed. Nobody in Bethlehem has been brave enough to try and loot in the dark.

I take a deep breath, shove open the door, and stop dead.

“Turn away, Jonah.” Sam would say. “Turn away and forget you saw it.” I back out the door, turn away and I almost try to forget. But then I remember that my brother Sam is dead.

The unmistakable click of a gun being cocked makes me freeze. In this dark, empty place, it sounds louder than the Regulators and their tanks. Hollow echoes tell me this space is full of metal doors, all of them closed. There’s nowhere to hide even if I could outrun a bullet.

I remember the time I got tired of sitting in our apartment staring at the walls while Sam was off doing whatever it was that ended up getting him killed, tired of him always telling me what to do. I threatened to leave and go Out West. “I can take care of myself,” I told him. Sam shook his head. “You wouldn’t last a month without me watching your back.”

Just like with everything else, Sam was right. Not even three weeks in and I’m a goner.

I raise my arms up high. “Wait,” I say. I twist my upper body slowly. “No sudden movements,” Sam would say.

“Don’t. Move.” She says.

I stop before I get turned around enough to face her. Her voice is surprisingly strong for someone so small. At least, she looked small from the glimpse I got. I thought she was younger, a little kid, maybe. But she sounds closer to my age, whatever that is. Sam guessed I was probably around seventeen by now. We used to keep track with our dad’s watch that told us the date but it died when I was eleven and Sam was fifteen. I don’t know how long ago that was, but I was seven the night the world went dark.

“I’m just looking for stuff to burn,” I say.

“You lie.” Her voice comes from directly behind my left ear. She moves quick. I never heard a thing, but now her breath tickles the back of my neck. “No one comes down here. You followed me.”

“I didn’t, I swear.” I try to turn to face her again, but she shoves her gun into my back. I switch tactics. “My name’s Jonah. I live in an apartment up the block.” I take a deep breath and turn around slowly. Sam always said eye contact was important whether you’re trying to intimidate someone or get them to trust you. I hear his voice in my head, “People are less likely to shoot you if you’re looking them in the eye.”

She keeps the gun pressed up against me as I turn, but she doesn’t tell me to stop this time. Her eyes are still red-rimmed and wet from the crying she’d been doing when I opened the door. It should make her look vulnerable but it doesn’t. The gun in her hand coupled with her tear-streaked face scream danger. I look into her glossy, dark eyes and speak as clearly and calmly as I can. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

She blinks and takes a step back, pointing the gun at my chest. “I know. You’re going to leave right now and never come back.”

I shake my head. “I can’t do that. I need heat.”

Her lip trembles and she pulls it into her mouth, biting it with her teeth. She squeezes her eyes shut and I hold my breath. This is it. I’m about to be reunited with Sam. It’s actually a relief. No more trying to make it on my own. I straighten up and brace for impact but it never comes. The girl blows out a long breath and lowers the gun.

“Carly,” she says and opens her eyes. She tilts her chin up to me and I see I was right, she is small. The top of her head only comes up to my shoulder. She must’ve been standing on her toes when she was behind me. “My name is Carly,” she says and then points at me with the gun. “Shut the door.”

I grab the handle and pull it closed. When I turn back to her she’s grabbed the lantern from the floor and moved into the far corner. With the light bouncing off the walls now, I see the room isn’t as big as I first thought. Double rows of boxes line one cinder block wall from floor to ceiling, they’re all labeled but it’s too dim to read and I can’t read much anyway. Two thin, narrow mattresses lie along the walls, meeting at the corner. Carly sits down on one and looks at me expectantly. I sit on the other, the lantern between us lights both of our faces.

I try to stare without staring. I’ve never seen a real girl before. Not up close. Only on the billboards that are still up around town, or in pictures in the magazines we found and burned. This girl looks nothing like the smiling, sun-baked girls in the magazines. Her skin is dark, but it’s still pale and I can see her bones through it. She’s all angles and shadows. When she hunches forward, her shoulder blades remind me of the birds that we used to see in Central Park. She’s cleaner than I’ve ever been in winter, when it’s too cold to jump in the river. And her long dark hair is mostly free of tangles. I can’t tell if she’s pretty. I have nothing real to compare her to, but I like the way she looks. She looks like hope. Even with the gun in her lap still pointed at me.

“Where are your people?” She asks.

I shrug. “It’s just me. Where are yours?”

“It’s just me, too.” She shrugs like I did, but a tear slips down her cheek, giving her away. She turns to the wall and swipes at it with her sleeve. “You took a big risk coming here.”

It’s not like I’m stupid. “Reckless,” Sam would say. But I thought that going out by myself for the first time since Sam disappeared – died, I remind myself. He didn’t come back, that means he’s dead. Just like Mom and Dad. I thought the best way to avoid the dangerous ones, was to go somewhere even they were afraid to go. “I figured no one else would ever come down here, so I’d be safe.”

She cocks her head and frowns at me. “No. I mean with everything that’s going on right now. It’s risky to go outside at all.”

“What are you--” Her hand clamps over my mouth, cutting me off. She puts a finger to her lips. A silent shhh.

Her eyes are inches from my face. Huge dark pools that beg me to keep still. To keep us both safe. Her eyes dart to the door and back to my face, telling me to listen. My heart pounds in my ears and at first I can’t tell the normal sounds of an abandoned building open to the wind from something more sinister. But then I hear it. The distinctive slide-scrape sound of the heavy metal suits and boots the Regulators wear. It’s growing louder, coming down the stairs toward us.

“We have to hide,” she whispers. I nod vigorously until she lets go of my mouth.

She grabs the gun and shoves it into the waistband of her pants. It won’t do anything against the Regulators but I feel better knowing she has it.

The Regulators have reached our level. Carly takes my hand and snuffs out the light. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and palms. My whole body is tensed, ready to go on her word. The scrape of the Regulators’ boots is so loud I can’t guess how many are out there. Maybe ten, maybe a thousand. I hear the clang of metal on metal as they pound at the doors around us. Any second they will reach ours and discover it’s unlocked.

Carly squeezes my hand and I realize I have to break Sam’s number one rule. I have to trust her.

“Now!” She shouts and then with surprising strength, she yanks me into the dark.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to run for my life, but it’s the first time I’ve feared for it.

Metal, scraping over cement over metal, screams in my ears. There is only movement and that horrible sound as we race through the black. The pressure of Carly’s hand is firm and the only reason I know she’s still with me, guiding me over unfamiliar ground. I close my eyes and follow her lead. Her pace shows no sign of uncertainty, and we run as though the air itself snaps at our heels with jagged, steal jaws.

“Know your exits,” Sam had said. “Never get boxed in.”

That’s exactly what I’d done when I walked into Carly’s room. I hadn’t even thought to spot a back way out but it must’ve been tucked behind stacks of boxes. Now, I’m lost in the bowels of this building with my only chance at staying safe and getting back out again a girl I met moments before. Nothing about this situation bodes well and Sam’s voice is a berating shout in my head.

After what must have been minutes, Carly tugs me out of my sprint and into a slow jog. I open my eyes and find that we’re in a long corridor washed in a stale, gray light. The floor is dusted in ash and snow that’s fallen through the places where high windows used to be. Just ahead of us is a staircase leading to the ground level and somewhere far behind us, the sound of Regulators tearing through the building is sharp and unending.

“But we were inside,” I say.  My voice sounds rough and small. I’ve never been so close to one of them before and my throat aches when I speak.

“That doesn’t matter anymore,” Carly says, her voice is fractured and falls on me like shards of glass. She’s trying not to look at me, but I can see her eyes shine even in this dim light. “Don’t you pay attention?"

I don’t answer because the truth is, I haven’t. Not since Sam died. My focus has been on getting enough to burn, enough to eat, and staying as low as possible because that’s how you survive. That’s how you stay safe.

Carly rakes one arm over her eyes and turns to me. “They’re cleansing this block. Maybe every block for all I know, but definitely this one.”

All we’ve ever had, and the only thing that’s ever been more real than a night with nothing to burn, are the rules. Theirs and ours. Theirs were simple; the scavenging times were scrawled across buildings in bright yellow paint as if we should be as grateful for them as we are for the sun.

Ours were really Sam’s tactics and strategies, but we’d tested them until they became undeniable and true. “Four things, Jonah,” he’d said more often than I could count. “We can’t trust anyone but each other, sympathy gets you dead, don’t get trapped, and stay put as often as you can. That’s how you stay safe.”

“What did we do?” I ask.

“What does that matter? Probably nothing. They’re out to finish us off and it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that we get out of here and fast.” She stops, crouches down with her back against the wall to tighten the laces of her boots. Her eyes never stop moving. “Are you coming?”

I don’t owe her anything, but the question makes me uneasy. The little apartment Sam and I shared is the only home I’ve ever known. Bethlehem is the only home I’ve ever known. I might have dreamed of finding a place with more to burn and something to eat besides rats and what little we could grow in our rooftop pots, but always in my plan there was time to prepare.

Sam would tell me no. Sam would tell me to go home and keep my head down until it all blew over.

“Jonah,” she says. It’s my name, but it sounds different coming from her. Sharper, maybe, or awake.

Echoing down the corridor are sounds of the Regulators’ search. They’re getting closer again, but another sound has joined their harsh melody and it drops from the high windows in rigid beats. Another team of Regulators is in the street. Not too near, by the sound of it, but I’ve never heard so many at one time.

Carly’s whole body is tensed and ready to move. Her eyes watch me, wide and dark and full of something I can’t name, but that I remember from before that last winter when the world went dark. It’s a look that matters.

“Where will we go?” I ask. “And how will we know it’s safe?”

She tucks her bottom lip between her teeth, drags it through pulling all the color from her lip into her mouth. Already, it’s a familiar gesture. “Anywhere but here. And,” she says with a shrug of her small shoulders, “we won’t.”

Another crash travels down the corridor. They’re coming now, it won’t take them long to find us if we stay. Nowhere is safe, I realize. Not when the threat of them is so near and so constant and not when they can make and break the rules without consequence. Believing in safety is what got Sam killed.

I nod and before I can think to stop myself, I’ve pulled her hand into mine. “West,” I say.

The cold star of Bethlehem is the first thing I see when we slip out of the building. It’s only a thin outline of gray wire against gray clouds, but I spot it as easily as if it were lit. With Carly’s hand in mine, we edge along buildings and down narrow alleyways, stopping whenever the slide-scrap of heavy boots grows too near. But she was right, they’re purging the block and though the buildings are loud with Regulators, the streets are empty.

It doesn’t take long before we’ve passed out of our block, out of Bethlehem and the only streets I’ve ever known.

My body is a constant vibration of cold and fear. This time, we aren’t just looking to survive the night. We aren’t just looking to scrape together enough to get us through the next hard freeze or the next long storm. This time, it’s about change.

For the first time, I feel that all of me is alive and that it matters.

Photo used with permission by J Moffat of Diamond Art on Flickr

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