This is a dystopian story that I wrote in 2017 or so after dreaming the first sentence and waking up with it still clear in my mind. It’s called “We Go Up.”
We fell asleep in the shadow of the Cordelia tree, 1605 Cement Garden Way. When we woke up, it was 6:36. It wasn’t night yet, but it was close. We shared a beer. Four minutes twenty-three seconds. Then, for fifteen minutes, we discussed our plan. “No changing it,” we said. Both of us said it. Neither of us believed the other, or ourselves.
Clay tied his shoes. Pink Asics. Good condition. Taken from a sleeping man. He apologized to me for the crime and I said, “Size six. Pink. Who’s he kidding? They aren’t his.”
I got mine–brown boots–at the river. A body. We must’ve been the first ones there. It was day–early morning–and I shouldn’t’ve been awake. But I was hungry, so I broke the rules. And I’m glad I did.
Some people have better water drains. Some people have better can openers. But we have the best shoes.
It’s our thing.
We started walking. As we did, it got dark. 7:10. We went to our usual spots first. The overpass on Mail. The dry creek bed near St. Mary’s. The trees with the hollows no one else knew about. We passed other groups. Some we recognized, most we didn’t. Nothing unusual–nothing that made us stop our rounds. Then we came to the footbridge that you have to take when you cut through Shannon Park to get to Chief street, a.k.a. The Front. 9:05.
There were four of them. They were older than us. They shook us down [change] pretty hard. Somewhere in the middle of it I took off my baseball cap and shoved it in my sleeve, but they got that, too, along with eerything we’d found so far. And our shoes.
They hurt us but not badly. Sore stomachs and shins. We knew not to fight grown-ups too hard. We were barefoot now, but we’d slept and we were fed. We checked the time: 9:16. Two hours six in, and we had to start over.
Across the footbridge, the Gap. Keep your head up. It’s not as empty as it looks. A few scores–about twenty grams. It went in my pocket that was inside my normal pocket. Then we arrived at the Front. 9:42.
We counted. there were twenty. Twenty was good, though. Twenty we could handle. It was early. People weren’t desperate yet. We wiped our hands on our pants and stepped forward.
No one looked at us. Perfect. We went to a round. One of the closest ones with a bartender we’d seen before.
“How much?” we asked the broker.
“Nine fifty,” he said.
We went cold. “Too much.”
He laughed. “Seven straight.”
Clay bent his right knee. I didn’t look, but I bent mine, too. I nodded to the man.
“What’s the trade?” he asked.
“Work,” said Clay. He always said it. I never could.
He gave us a card. But before we could leave, something broke the sky. It was the sound.
We followed the sound, not with our ears but with our eyes. One bullhorn. Another. Now two.
“We have to work,” said Clay.
“We got the cards,” I said.
“Seriously?” asked the man.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You guys know what’s left, right?”
“Then please, be my fucking guest.” He rose his hand and lifted two fingers.
The men with the bullhorns approached. “All we have is the Mountain. Three hours up, two there, then Five back.”
“Ever done the Mountain before?”
“Not since the slide.”
“You can climb?”
“Okay, then. Let’s go.”
10:50. We go up.
The chain is like a dog leash. You can hold it, but you can also let go. You just have to slip the loop off your wrist. There are scores on the way, but you can’t grab them—can’t even look. If you look, you start to get ideas.
12:54. We’re there. We unhook. Four minutes late and we haven’t even started. The biggest guys choose first. We’re litlte.
We dig. Our patch is picked over. We find worms and beetles. Leaves, of courase. Two ripe berries. We see a group of mushrooms, but they’re the wrong kind. We step on them. Maybe they’ll be good food for someone else.
We dig more.
3:08 a.m. A lot of dirt. A whole trench. Three canvas bags of insects between us. The officer yells, “Two minutes,” and for the first time since we started, we look at each other. We eat the lunch they give us: porridge. X’s eyes are tired. There is mud in the creases under them. There is a branch in his hair. I take it out, and he closes his eyes briefly to acknowledge the favor. The officer yells again. “3:10.” We stand up.
Going down is harder by far than going up. Our feet slip. We’re easily out of breath. At the bottom we turn in our sacks and collect our reward. A bag of lentils each and half a loaf of bread.
I look at my watch. “Forty minutes,” I say. X smiles. Forty whole minutes. I laugh. The [money guy] raises his eyebrows at us. The other workers leave slowly, each to their side of the [divide].
“We need a fire, don’t we?”
“Naw. Enough work for one night. We’ll eat the bread and save the beans for tomorrow.”
We don’t take the road. We take the field, like before. We are carrying too much. We walk far. Very far. Around one camp and across some lots. We don’t want to stop walking, but we do.
We’re at the scrap yard. There’s one good vehicle left, a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. We laugh when we see it, hit the front with our flat hands. Kick the tires.
“Yeah, she’ll be all right. How much you want for it?”
“Damn. We could stay here for a week.”
We climb in, each to a row, him in the back and me in the front. We don’t have our shoes, but we have bread, and we eat it all, eat it right, slowly, with water. Our stomachs cramp, but not much. As the sun rises, we talk. We make plans for when things get back to normal.
“I always wanted to be a fireman,” X tells me. I tell him I will, too. I tell him I’ll be his boss.
“What would we do if we weren’t looking for food, do you think?”
“I don’t know. Fight fires, I guess.”
“And what about the rest of the time? Watch TV, like we used to?”
“Naw. TV is for babies.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Think we’ll find some other kids soon, like before?”
“I think so.”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Maybe we’ll go south.”
“Maybe. It’s okay this way too, though.”
“Yeah. It’s okay for now. No one telling us what to do.”
“Tonight wasn’t bad, was it?”
“Naw. Not so bad.”
We pause a moment, our hands on our stomachs.
“There’s light,” I say. He nods, and covers his windows. I cover mine, too.
We go to sleep. Tomorrow, we’d go up again.
Babies come. But babies don't go. Get Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Story on Amazon now.