The respirator smelled of rubber and mineral oil, stretched across Aleixo’s face and irritating his shadow of a beard. He had borrowed a set of safety goggles with tinted side shields, and they pinched the bridge of his nose, shoved up uncomfortably by the mask. The filters clicked in and out as he breathed, creating a discordant tempo with his pace as he strode toward the western checkpoint. The City streets were no longer bustling with rush hour traffic, so the checkpoint was relatively quiet – one car waiting to drive out of the City, two trucks waiting to come in. He pulled the folded papers out of his pocket and marched up to one of the cops by the gate.
“Shit, Quintana, not again,” the cop said. The badge on his chest read ‘POLONSKI’. “You can’t just go out there, go home.”
Aleixo made a show of shaking out the folds in the sheets, enjoying the cacophony of snapping, hissing paper that turned the other guard’s heads. “George got the Commissioner’s approval. Suck it, Colonski.”
Polonski glared at him, grabbing the papers. He looked at them carefully, flipping through. Aleixo became uncomfortably aware of the submachine guns being carried by most of the policemen at the checkpoint, eyeing their visored helmets and body armor as he waited. Eventually, Polonski refolded the official permission forms and handed them back. He gave the nod to the control booth, and the gate at the end of the sidewalk buzzed and swung open. Aleixo smiled at Polonski, who glared back, and all but skipped down the sidewalk and past the checkpoint.
Beyond the gate, there was a road, packed concrete dust and rubble worn down by tire treads. On either side, destruction. He hadn’t been out there in almost a year, not since they started regulating the passage of people in and out of the core. Security precautions – keeping the ignorant out of trouble by penning them up within what had been rebuilt and away from the wreckage they had left behind. Quintana turned up the collar on his old suede coat, stuffed his hands into his jean pockets, and started walking.
The sun was hot and rising higher. The wind from the north carried grit that stung his forehead and neck and matted his hair. He passed old storefronts, their signs bleached of red, windows cracked or blown out entirely. Husks of cars, rusted paper thin and sand blasted free of color, had been pushed off the long western road and unceremoniously thrust into old buildings, alleyways, or piled up at the mouths of particularly unsafe streets. A semi rumbled past towing a load of fresh produce, and honked at him. Aleixo waved.
It was strange navigating streets he had known for years that were now in ruins. He recognized places he had visited, residences of old friends, and yet all familiarity had been burned away. It was a nightmare of what he had known before. He had used a cached online map to find the way to his destination, and it was not a short walk. After 30 minutes, he started to whistle, at an hour he started grapevining until his calves burned and he stopped. It was a left on 123rd then on up to 157th to go right, right into what had been Haysboro.
Just east of the industrial row on the outskirts of town, and south of an old rail line, it was a neighborhood destined to be shit. It was low-rent, full of pawn shops, thrift stores, and many, many bars and churches. He had come through the area a lot when he reported for the local on gang activity. All kinds of nasty business had been carried out there. Although there had been some good people in there, too.
Haysboro was built in a shallow depression – it frequently flooded – so the buildings here had been protected from the blast more than the rest of the city (except for the river valley area). As he wandered deeper, he saw fragments of second stories preserved with greater and greater frequency.
He stopped. Location one.
It was one of the House of Dreams’ soup kitchens, simply called “Haysboro Outreach”. No front window, just a brick façade, plastered with posters for bands, ads for selling cars, lost cats. The sign was long gone, the heavy iron door hanging ajar. He pulled a pair of safety gloves out of his back pocket, cramming his long, bony fingers into the clammy canvas, and gingerly began picking his way over the upturned sidewalk slabs toward the entrance.
Anna had to sidle past three men standing in line to get through the door. It was a busy night – for some reason, Wednesdays typically were. Inside, all the benches at the steel tables were full, haggard men and women slurping and smacking their way through a meal, some laughing and talking, loud drunken raving coming from Steve as usual. She waved off Colleen’s questions as she hurried past the line and into the kitchen. Huge pots and dripping serving pans were piled up across the back wall by the sink. She sighed, her cracked and dry hands aching. Anna put her purse in the cupboard under the sink, pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, and grabbed the scrub brush.
“Hold on! Say hello first!”
Two big arms embraced her. Anna jumped, startled, then relaxed and gave them a squeeze. “Sorry, Eleanor.”
“It’s your first day back, you goof. I missed you – we all did!” Eleanor turned her around. Anna saw deep concern in her old, kind eyes. “How are you feeling?”
“I-I’m fine. Really.”
“After what happened –“
“I’m fine.” Anna pushed free of her grasp. She shied away from her, avoiding her eyes. Hearing Mrs. Gabor scream. “I’m fine,” she repeated, and turned back to the sink.
“Alright,” Eleanor said quietly, reluctantly. She started walking away, then paused. “When you’re ready.”
Anna started scrubbing, her tears dripping into the cold, greasy water.
The old, steel picnic-style tables were still standing in a neat grid, covered in a film of brown dust. The cheap tile floor had probably been filthy before the City ended, and was no better now. Quintana scoured the walls, searched the tiny front desk, the long, dented serving line, but there was no trace of who had been there. No carved insults in walls, no “Volunteer of the Month” plaque. There was a curling, moldering poster hanging in the kitchen area that said “Do unto Others as You Would Have Them Do unto You”, and next to it a duty roster, but her name wasn’t there. He stood for a while by the old sink, dim light filtering in from the front door and from the screen of his phone, but felt nothing grab his attention.
Location two, then.
Three blocks away stood an old brick building with hideous pink stucco, across the street from had been a deli with a white and blue awning. Strips of weatherproofed fabric still clung to the old wire framework, waving in the hot wind as he loped past to stand and stare at her building. Anna’s home.
Aleixo pulled a notebook out of his inner jacket pocket, awkwardly thumbing through pages with his gloved fingers to find the address. Anna had lived in apartment 204. Of the second floor, only the eastern half was at all preserved, three windows framing blue sky staring out from an uneven jut of brick, wood and insulation. The western half of the building had completely collapsed. So he decided the second window from the end was hers, to give the scene context and meaning. He carefully eyed the rubble, scanning through it a couple of times to check for any gaps or pockets below his planned route. He paused when his vision caught a skull, half-crushed, trapped between a twisted I-beam and the floor, lit only by a faint stream of golden, dusty light.
Anna threw back the drapes over the window to her studio apartment and took a deep breath. Her skin was slick with sweat, her arms still shaking from the nightmare she had just escaped. After fighting with the latch, she slid the window open, and street sounds flooded in, the comforting familiarity of bicycles rattling past, cars rumbling down the street and people chatting at Ivan’s deli across the street. Birds were singing somewhere below the urban soundscape, and she saw a robin wing past up into the eaves on the third floor above, something wriggling in its mouth. Fresh bread and diesel comingled and tickled her nose.
She settled into her armchair, broken springs digging into her thighs as she cradled her head in her hands, taking long, deep breaths.
A big, furry head dropped itself onto her knee, a warm chest pressed against her shin. She smiled, and opened her eyes to look deep into a pair of dark brown eyes. “Hey, Bob.”
Bob licked his chops and sighed, his tail thumping on the floor at the mention of his name. She reached down and scratched him behind one ear. He panted happily.
“You’re right.” She bent down and kissed the top of his head. “Gotta keep my chin up, right?”
He dropped a paw onto her knee. “Yup,” she said, feeling a swell of warmth and strength. “Have to stay positive. Have to keep on going.”
Aleixo pulled himself up the final few feet to the second story. There was some intact floor behind the windows, a few shreds of carpet stapled down here and there, but when he tested it out under his weight it creaked and groaned, so he stayed balanced on the exterior. He pressed his back against the crumbling stucco and inched further along until he was as close as possible to “her” window. He looked out at the view, trying to immerse himself in it, trying to imagine it as it was.
He wasn’t exactly sure what he had hoped to get out of this trip. It had always been his first move to visit the places his subject lived and spent their days. It gave their lives context. Place was an important part of self. In this case, his subject had erased the City she called home, so there was next to nothing for him to analyze. He started looking for a way down… then stopped.
He squinted. “No way…”
He skidded and slipped down to street level and set off running, his boots echoing against the uneven, fractious ground. He scanned his sight through the buildings around him, verifying a clear path. It didn’t take long. Aleixo skidded to a stop, breathless, air filters popping on the respirator. He focused his gaze, squinting as he carefully peeled back debris, dust, and a few layers of graffiti.
There it was. Written in tall, black, block letters, just barely visible from her window (if he had guessed right, and he was increasingly sure he had been right, or close).
THE CITY WILL FALL
“What the…” he trailed off. He wasn’t sure what it was, what it meant, but he knew that phrase. He had heard it before. And he knew where.
Slowly, something began to feel wrong. He looked around slowly, carefully, staying very still. He checked the immediate vicinity, then pushed his vision through the first layer of walls around him and checked again. Then stopped.
A hooded figure was standing just on the other side of the marked wall, its shadowed face pointed right at him. They did not move, just seemed to stare at him through a solid, windowless expanse. Black, immobile. Then, slowly, they raised their arm, pointing over his shoulder.
Instinctively, Quintana turned. His vision reflexively pushed past all obstacles in a blinding rush, and he saw them, a group of dirty, ragged men, carrying broken pipes, makeshift weapons of all types, and they were walking intently in his direction.
He span, looked again. The hooded figure was gone.
“Ok,” he said, his voice robotic through the hiss of the respirator. “Time to go.”
The map. He remembered the map. Looked at the sun, got his bearings, and crouched down behind a broken down station wagon. As the filters clicked and his pulse quickened, he sent his eyes to the approaching group, too far off to hear, and pulled back slowly, building fragments fading back into place as he probed the surroundings and found each path before them. They could go left or right at the next intersection, go up further then right to Anna’s building, or zigzag over to him. Either way, they weren’t moving slow, some were hopping between steps, clearly on edge, clearly gearing up for something. One of them occasionally seemed to flicker and flash forward and back a few steps in a split second. Another flicked out a long, grey tongue now and again, like a lizard scenting the air.
Focus, more important. It was a solid five minute, all-out run to the western highway, and an absence of rising dust clouds made it clear no trucks were coming or going there. One clear shot dead south, some cover, not much. Or he could try to be more creative. He reviewed a few different streets and options, his irises aching as they expanded and contracted rapidly. He tried to press at them to soothe them, but his gloves just battered the safety glasses and he swore. His heart raced. Of course he hadn’t brought a weapon. Not his style. Nope. But sometimes he questioned his reliance on style.
He didn’t have much longer before they would hear him as he ran. They had passed the first intersection and some of them were jogging. There was always a chance that one or more of them could catch him as soon as he moved, but he wouldn’t know that until it was too late, and if he waited to find out it would definitely be too late. Too late to wait anymore.
His shoes were too nice to give much grip, he had to be careful on where he moved and how. Gravel, rubble, anything could trip him, slide his foot wrong. He stayed hunched low, eyes fixed ahead, glancing again and again to the group approaching to the east. So far, so good. One seemed to be sniffing at the air. They turned towards the Blank’s apartment, following him. The wind – it was coming from the north. He kept running, but cut another block west to put more space between him and them.
He glanced up and over – the flickering man flashed from ground level to the second story, then back down. Quintana vaulted over a fallen lamppost, wincing as it creaked loudly. Glanced again. The bloodhound was leading the group at a run, following his path towards the graffiti.
Not a runner, Aleixo found his sides aching, feet sore, lungs burning. Through the respirator it was hard to get enough air now that he was breathing harder and harder. He dodged behind what was left of a gas station wall, slammed his back against it, and tried not to collapse.
Looking back, he saw them standing at the graffitied wall now, scenting, flashing around.
Aleixo’s jaw dropped.
A hooded figure appeared from around a corner north of them, walking at a slow deliberate pace. The group turned, approached it, thrusting their weapons forward threateningly. The figure stopped, turned toward them, and stood still. They closed in.
Quintana started running again, heading due east, cutting across the road they were on while they were distracted. But by who? He slapped himself, the glove bouncing off the rubber mask. He had to focus. Questions later. He ran, and ran. And ran. Only when he hit the western highway again did he slow to a jog. Even with his unique vision, he could barely see them now in the far distance. But there was no one close by that was within his sight, so he was safe. For now. Aleixo did not grapevine on his way back into the City core.