The sign hung like a glorious ticket for the train to Paradise. Raffian ran his eyes over the numbers again with a voracious desire; $5 for each kilogram of discarded metal taken to the recycle center he passed on his way to the war factory where daily he begged at the gates for some kind of work, and where daily he was rejected. His face was unkempt and craggy from the nicks he sustained while shaving with his last dull razor; a new army of hair-soldiers stood tall and defiant as the victors of his chin, and they scraped his hand viciously when he ran it over them. He left the government recycle center, and was startled by a small child running out from under her cardboard refuge. Pulling tattered leather layers tighter around him, Raffian repaired to his modest, one-bathroom home, in which the bathroom was the same room as the kitchen, foyer, and every other room a room could be. Snail would be wanting dinner.
An unhealthy sound of corrugated steel on corrugated steel announced to Snail, and anyone within a half-mile that his father was home. Raffian closed the door with a wince at the noise, and packed more industrial clay between the cracks to keep out the murderous cold. His home was a luxuriant shanty on the edge of what is colloquially known as The Common Ground; a commune of impecunious and slapdash houses of refuse, in the style of the "neighborhoods" of the past. The tribe of iron wigwams stretched farther than one could see, even from an elevated vantage. It afforded him and his son adequate space for living, but others who resided with a dozen or more relatives or renters were not so fortunate.
Raffian produced a stalk of still-wet celery from a pocket buried by jackets and coats, damp from the pale gutter water he used to wash it with. From another pouch he took a packet of oatmeal with freeze-dried berries. The worn tin kettle that roosted constantly on the fire, ever-boiling to purify the gray and stale water that was available, was hurriedly refilled from the crude, improvised faucet, and soon was whistling once more.
"Can you believe it's almost Christmas?" Raffian asked with genuine wonder in his voice as he poured the steaming substance over preservative-encrusted oats. Snail had already begun munching on a desiccated strawberry. Before answering, he shoved several spoonfuls of hot cereal into his hungry maw.
"Mhm!" His son replied mouth-full, with the understandable jubilance of a child at Chrismastime. "It's real cold outside, and it seems so long since last year's."
"Sure does seem that way, doesn't it?" Raffian smiled bleakly, knowing that the years were being extended to lengthen the fiscal season, in order to reap more work from the surfeit of laborers.
He left Snail to his meager nourishment, having already eaten a meeker stalk of celery he'd found, as well as some discarded birdseed at the park. There were things that needed attention.
From underneath a threadbare sheet, he produced the plain felt pouch. The weight of it comforted him, and assuaged the tempest of stricken emotion that pervaded his baseline attitude. The tightness of the knot that bound it made him feel similarly secure, and less like a flag so buffeted and diaphanous, at the mercy of the wind. Quietly, and with his body preventing Snail from seeing his secret doings, he undid that security and slid the coins on the blanket. They had been counted more times than the amount they were worth, but they were so precious to him in what they could do that keeping them in his possession became almost as essential as protecting Snail. They were necessary for Snail's sentimental survival.
The spring months always seem to be viewed with the hazy glare of a dream-like lens, but this year it could've been attributed to the scores of pollen that drifted unceasingly somewhere overhead, and collected like melted slush upon the ground. Raffian had thought it beautiful, because each morning on his trudge to work (for it was a time when he'd actually had work), he could breathe in deeply and be awed by the stages and natural sustenance of life. In the hue-tinged evenings, when pollution and retreating sunlight fornicated in the skies to produce masterworks of orange and pink, he and Sash would walk, hands on the others' hips and Snail in tow, joking and smiling despite it all. Her amber eyes burned day and night, regardless of the presence or absence of light. But the dream ended abruptly; ruthless and destructive chemicals, of which leaks were common and typically harmless, were exuded en masse by a nearby expectorant producer. The hapless pollen became its deadly carrier, and one day Raffian noticed Sash had procured an ominous cough. Many others got sick; it was a fortnight of pandemic before surgical masks were provided. A viscous and inhuman bile from Sash's ravaged lungs had gotten nearly everywhere in the shanty, and he'd had to quit his job to maintain her in her fragile state and keep Snail away from the foul she expelled. He couldn't, however, keep their son from hearing her whimpers as they lay at night, none of them sleeping. She had been his wife for five unlengthened years, and had died unexpectedly and peacefully" or so he told Snail. In reality, he had purchased some Cyanitril tablets to give her a merciful and controlled death. He had begged her to subsist, to live despite her torment, but her condition was clearly far-gone. It was her will, and eventually it became his.
It was necessary that he not grieve for long. He had a responsibility, a duty to protect his son that surpassed his own need for emotional relief. On the evening of her death, however, he had wandered the avenues of the industrial park with saline rivulets running freely over his cheeks, shouting invective oaths at indignant smokestacks and collapsing defeated on a graffitied bench. The next day, he worked without protest. He found he was tired of noticing injustice; it was as common as the light and the dark.
But Snail couldn't cope as readily. Often, staring downwards at nothing in particular for hours, Raffian would have to physically jolt him to get any response. Sometimes, whimpers and sniffing came from his pile of blankets in the night, and they kept Raffian awake to despair at their forlornitude and sorrow. That's why it was so important that he allow him some semblance of joy, in the form of another, distracting merry Christmas.
The whistle of pent-up steam drew Raffian back into lucidity. Snail had put another kettleful on to wash out his near-licked-clean bowl. Ordeal and turmoil had seemed to serve his drive; he always managed to keep the house clean, and spent nearly all his days searching for food in the rubble of the suburban circle or doing odd jobs for abnormal pay. As the water in the dented tin began to boil, more came into the shanty through the leak-prone roof in the form of stinging precipitation. It had started to rain, yet Raffian hadn't noticed any clouds.
"Can I help you put the tarp on, Dad?" Snail inquired, putting away his dish.
"Sure, bud. I'd love your help." He stood up, folding the sheet to hide the tokens as he did, and got the large, blue tarp that was rolled up like a tube of bills.
Outside, most other shanties already donned their waterproof armor. Several groups stood around others and hurried to pull some cover over. Unfurling the bundle like a scroll, Raffian flapped the tarp open and hastily launched one end to Snail on the other side of their residence. Together, they lashed it tight upon its pied metal roof, and Snail dashed inside, his hair already plastered to his face by the rain. Raffian turned his gaze to another habitation's occupants; a large family of seven or eight, perhaps with more inside, rushing to protect their possessions from imminent water-damage. Due to the Familiar Priority Act, a law easily passed several years prior due to the existence of solely a monarchal executive branch, secured larger families' labor-suited members places in the work force. The law was hard to take advantage of; something in the public's water made it harder to conceive, and there was a requisite amount of children for the edict to apply. However, despite the occupational advantage, grotesque emaciation and malnutrition was obvious in this family's younger individuals, and one child didn't even wear any garments over his torso, his ribs protruding like fingers around his inchoate frame. The sight made Raffian uneasy, but he conceded that he himself probably didn't look very corpulent in comparison.
There was a thunderous boom of shocked particles in the distance, so Raffian retreated in-to-doors, closing the corrugated steel shut behind with a similar, explosive clangor. Tomorrow, he would need strength.
A pollutant-laden haze crawled monopedically on dirty city streets. Hockers for stolen or illegal or stolen illegal goods shouted like mediaeval town criers, and lined both edges of the roads. Miasmal breath arose from the uncountable smokestacks already, had been doing so earlier in the morning than humans wake, and had been exhaled all throughout the storming night. The breath turned into dark, brooding clouds that separated the Earth from the already-overcast sky. Despite the environmental ramifications, it could have been beautiful. Sometimes, the smoke had tints of vibrant and unexpected colors, produced by the alchemical processes at work low below the land, and there were radiant hues in the frequent acid rains.
Carrying several supernumerary tin cans and pieces of scrap in a discreet bag, Raffian made his way on the decaying boulevards to the junkyard. Although it could be argued that the whole of the city was a junkyard, a dispensary for unwanted refuse, there still remained one or quite a few city blocks where it was more acceptable to discard another man's treasure. Now, however, most citizens would hold on to what they have with both hands, and devoted the rest of themselves to acquiring still more.
The scrapyards were the places to find more. They became (or always were) veritable department stores in which the wares' use had never been fully realized. Somewhat nutritive foods, decoration and ornaments, means of self-defense and materials for home renovation could all be found at the dump. And with this in his mind, Raffian turned into the cold steel gate of the yard and found he was not the only schemer with this in his mind on that cold morning.
Crowds gathered on every pile of rubble and dug like burrowing, nocturnal animals through the trash. Children played with rubbish when their parents weren't forcing them to search, usually on pain of not eating that night; they were always searching for this night's meal. Others carried away spectacular loot; intact umbrellas and lamps, garments not entirely covered in dirt, packets of once-frozen food. One man even clutched a long rod tipped in a fan of bristles to his side as he rushed away under the gaze of the jealous. Two brawny men exchanged harsh words and then blows over a small pile of brass wire. No way could Raffian find any unclaimed or uncontested material here.
He looked at the scene with dismay and disappointment, primarily in his own thoughtlessness. He brought his hand to his poorly-shaven face, contemplating what he could do to mitigate this development. Of course such a free-for-all charity would not go unexploited by the much-exploited masses. He turned away, downtrodden and dejected, ready to take what little he had to be compensated, when fate spoke up quite softly.
"Are you here alone?" A light, pale face with tree-sap eyes looked up to him from about four feet off the ground. Despite her ghostly complexion, ruddy specks in her cheeks gave the girl a look of warm and congenial mirth. He knelt down and asked her to repeat herself, for she spoke so softly as to be eclipsed by a mouse's squeak.
He nodded in response. She beckoned beyond herself, motioning for Raffian to follow with a thin, yet healthy, hand. Warily, he trailed behind through the growing multitudes of "junkies" until they emerged onto the street where it was somewhat less populated, Raffian left to wonder all the while where this young, probably no older than six-year-old girl could be taking him, and where her parents were. Once they were less buffeted by the avaricious hordes, he caught her shoulder and gently spun her to face him.
"Do your parents know where you are?" He said with concern. He couldn't help recalling the handful of desperate times he had lost Snail to the unthinking mobs, the supreme terror it instilled within him and the murderous rage for the foolish bystanders who failed to help or notice. How belligerently self-involved they all were, would always be. For all his life, Raffian had considered himself noticing wrongs and devoting his personal actions to correcting them, if only in his own life.
The girl looked confused at his question, then shook her head, and as she was about to continue down towards wherever her destination be, he caught her shoulder again and inquired, "Where are they?"
She brushed him off, not unkindly, and shook her head again. This time, Raffian let her continue.
After they had taken several turns, walking abreast and talking seldom, Raffian mulled over the strangeness of the encounter. Just as he contemplated leaving the girl, whose salubriousness denoted her capability, to her own devices and finding his way back to the recycle center before it closed, as if she had sensed his doubts, the girl exclaimed, "Here we are!"
Upon turning left, a narrow chasm between two still-standing skyscrapers pervaded Raffian's vision. This district of the city was a relic, an anachronism; the same stolid, steel skeletons stood, their flesh eroding and the bones showed through. Some tried to inhabit the desecrated obelisks, but doing so was treacherous. The creaking, crumbling things were never maintenanced, and constantly threatened collapse. Some acted on these threats. Thus, Raffian tried to stay away from the old "utopia," and he minded that Snail do the same.
The girl had no apprehensions about the danger on either side; she calmly strode into the tight-lipped maw of the alleyway, leaving Raffian to collect himself and follow suit. Between the two giants, he felt his vision stretch and distort and distances became illusory to his befuddled mind. For a moment, he looked above and quickly lowered his gaze, regretting doing so as he felt the ground shake below his trembling legs. "How much further are we going?" he asked, regaining his composure. But as he said this, the girl came to a stop before an ornate and gleaming door.
No tricks are dirtier than the incorrigible ruses perception commonly plays on us all. From the entrance to the concrete-walled canyon, he could not see any such door, nor could he from halfway down the alley. Now that the portal stood refulgent before him, he wondered why he hadn't seen its glow as he approached. Inlaid with a strange, yellow-ish, and lustrous material that Raffian had never seen before, and decorated fastidiously with aesthetic flowers of white and black that looked inarguably looked better than the dreary things flowers looked like today. The door seemed imaginary. He touched it with a grimy hand; it was not. Although it was dark as a dust storm in the space between the buildings, the red, untarnished paint of the door shone with an otherworldly lambency. Raffian could scarcely remember anything he had observed that was so captivating as this door; crashing planes were hackneyed, a beautiful woman was only that (and now more often covered in grime, which detracted some amount of beauty), the oceans had all turned to purple sludge, the beaches to swamp and mire. This had reminiscence, a nostalgia that was not his, but in its swift wave of anamnesis it swept him up and kept him captive by the handle.
Disregarding the momentous feelings he himself felt, the young girl opened the door as casually as a drunken soldier brushes aside a tent flap after a late-night carousal. He caught another glance of the mesmeranzanine, and stepped inside.
The interior of the room was blacker than coal, and Raffian's heart raced as the fleeting light from the shadowed alley outside dwindled with the door's closing behind them. Wanting to seem as fearless as this pale girl, who he still heard shuffling on through the tar-black room, he did not rush back to throw it open and shed some light on exactly what he'd walked into.
As if in response to his nervousness, a large mechanical sound accompanied by the buzz of massive amounts of electricity galvanizing resounded in the dark, and the lights tinked on groggily with much flickering, discontented with being woken from their rest. Still, their luminance was warm and unwavering; it made Raffian uncomfortable. He had spent little time in artificial daylight, since electricity was available only to the moneyed and there were no functioning streetlamps or house lights. On every corner and measured distance, they stood like dead snakes frozen with rigor mortis, the city around them dark as, darker than oil.
Raffian stopped thinking about the lights indefinitely, and emitted an audible and quite effeminate gasp.
As far as he could see, to the wall that seemed a day's journey away, were things. Things hung from the ceiling, gleamed in glass containers, sat stacked neatly in shelves as if they had never been touched. Several yards away, his guide stood with her hand on the lever of a downward-turned throwswitch. She shut the control box with visible know-how, and continued on her way. Now she looked upon him as she walked with warmth in her face.
"I couldn't explain outside. Too many people around." The youth fixed him with a gaze more experienced than he saw in most of his contemporaries. And considerably less decrepit.
"What sort of place is this?" he asked.
The girl surveyed their environs with familiarity. "This is a department store. They used to be all over, when people had money and they still went to stores to buy things. My parents and I found this place untouched, the front still barricaded and the only way through being the red door." Raffian only heard murmurs of the girl's tale; instead, his focus was upon the commodities that surrounded them on all sides. Nothing had any signs of wear or filth about them, despite a minute amount of dust that seemed just as magnificent. Watches, pendants, chains, and things he had never known to exist lay just behind a glass partition; clothes tidily folded and arranged according to sex, size, and climate; wholly intact shoes; and shining tinsel and glitter encompassed the hall around them. It was overwhelming.
"The door was locked, but Daddy did something, touched it some way he didn't before, and it opened wide. He said he talked to it, but I don't think you can talk to doors." This piqued Raffian's floundering focus. She continued, "We lived here for a long time, eating the food we found downstairs. We only went out at night, when no one could see us leaving. We used to sell some of the things in this store to buy food when we ran out, like clothes and whatever people could afford. Sometimes we just gave things away." The two had stopped walking, and stood before two staircases with gray, ridged steps and railings of glass and lustrous black rubber.
"Sometimes we sold the nice-looking things for almost-nothing, and people seemed so happy when we did. But on one night, it was really hot I remember, these people waited outside the alleyway for us. I thought they were following us before; I saw them sometimes, but never said anything. They stood there holding knives and perfume bottles and fire, which we had gave them, and they said to give them everything and show where we found it.
"My daddy got very mad, I could tell, but he said real calm, "Go back to the door and pull as hard as you can. Mommy and I love you, and we'll always be with you.' And then I ran back as hard as I could, and I could hear them fighting Mommy and Daddy, but I kept going. I heard Mom's shouts when I got to the door, but I pulled at the handle. It was locked, like it always was when we left, so I pulled and squeezed the doorknob, and finally it opened." The girl kept the same expression during her entire account; he could identify it only as resilience.
"What about the people outside, the ones your parents fought?" he asked, trying to be delicate in the matter, knowing her parents had been killed.
The girl looked unfazed. "After my parents, they came to the door. Or, at least, I heard them outside it. They walked past without even trying the doorknob."
The grown man didn't know what conclusion to draw on the sketchbook of her tale. It seemed far-fetched, fantastic, and for all intents and purposes devastating. The girl's resolve and unwavering disposition, equally unwavering as the lights overhead in the room, threw him off.
"Why did you bring me here?" Raffian continued to inquire.
"You reminded me of a secret friend I used to know, before Mommy and Daddy were gone." Raffian felt like a beached whale; the ocean was behind him, lapping at his rapidly drying cartilage, futilely crashing with much noise, but he still was not in his biologically designated milieu. The whole event was bizarre, but he managed to retain composition. "And I knew you were looking for something," the girl finished.
"How long have you lived here alone?" All this questioning made him feel like an alien. Perhaps he was, in this foreign land.
"Hmm"" the girl audibly pondered. Then said cryptically, "Since the pollen was floating in the sky."
After saying this, she reached out a hand and opened another fusebox in between the staircases' bases. A luscious red handle was thrown, another vibration of electrons through the subterranean wires that drew from the self-maintaining generator, and creaking as if rigidly arthritic the stairs proceeded to shift.
Despite the rush he had experienced moments ago before the grandeur of the door, this sight of a functioning relic tingled in his spine like the feeling of being shown, intimately, how something is done. All of the components were there, all working as intended by the designers who manufactured many other contraptions like this. Excitement made him half as giddy as a toddler, and propelled him at once to jump upon the escalator. He had incorrectly anticipated the stairs' motion, however, and spent a few breathless seconds getting to the top while the girl nonchalantly ascended on the correct side.
The breath went out of him for two reasons when he reached the second floor. One; the aforementioned strenuity of climbing on descending platforms, and two; the large, heavily (to-the-point-of-collapse) ornamented, green strobilus that began on the first floor and nearly pushed the ceiling of the second with its crown. Raffian was astonished he hadn't seen it when he first came in. He knew, beyond himself, that what he descried was a tree.
The hedge maples and callery pears of the modern municipal districts not totally asphyxiated by the factories' output of toxins were sickly things. Once-rigid trunks hobbled over with fatigue and poison; wood-infecting insects and bacteria ran unabated, created deadwood on live trees; the bur oaks, honeylocusts, eucalypti, and European hornbeams of the parks (which became wild without use, and poisoned without care) were felled for their lumber by freezing families, or decayed where they stood, at the mercy of pollutants. He doubted he had ever seen an unaffected tree.
But now here before him rose a bastion of the past, and in its center a living anachronism. He moved to the balcony, which allowed a full view of the tree, quite transfixed.
"That's an evergreen," the youth told him. "My dad told me that. It's always been green, since the day I came here."
This observation entered his thoughts as he surveyed the tree with a newborn's fascination. Tinsel from the ceiling spiraled around its conical form, impressive refractions shone off the ornaments when he moved his head, and the giant and perfect-looking giftboxes around its base made his heart hasten, for a reason he didn't know.
He turned away, with hesitation, to see the girl looking at him with serious eyes. An esoteric knowledge dwelled in her look, which Raffian could tell surpassed his own, and she confirmed its presence with her words. "These trees, when they've got that stuff hanging on them, they're called Christmas trees. People used to cut them down, around Christmas, for people to buy and put in their homes and decorate like this one." A smile spread across her face as she recounted this lost historical fact, and had infected Raffian's own mouth. Feelings of suppressed joy were straining to get out through the burst seams of his disposition, and his heart felt warm as a Yule log.
It was ridiculous to imagine, that once it was common for these eternally green sovereigns to be cut down for only a short time, then to be disposed like so many twigs and leaves. He could see why these were a part of the Christmas tradition. Somehow, it seemed right; he felt filled to spilling with molten gold. Each look at the gargantuan tree instilled within in him an equally gargantuan feeling of"spirit, he realized without any actual percolation. He found he had the strangest urge to climb upon the railing and launch himself into an embrace with the foliaged, resolute guardian.
The child was not so impressed. She walked alongside the railing without once looking at the wonder beside her. Raffian drank in more of its intoxicating image, then turned to catch up. Once he did, he understood his being there.
Ahead and to the sides extended a subculture of the department store's ecology. Pots and pans (originally, Raffian had not known there was a difference) sat in their original positions amidst mugs and cups and glasses and goblets and chalices and vessels and demitasses and cannikins and tumblers and thermoses and an array of unidentifiable drinking apparatuses. Cutlery and finery and chinary were stacked and displayed aesthetically. But Raffian cared not for the arrangement of dishes; he could only notice all the glorious, untarnished, gleaming and unsoiled metal.
All of his life, as in any sentient life's life, goals had presented themselves to or were created by himself. Thinking about his childhood and his lack of visceral action produced in him a dutiful persona in later years. He conjured in his mind the tangible aspect of a goal, and sought unremittingly to actualize that object. So, on seeing the substances he required to succeed, his body impulsively forgot that all he would need for money was the other, more valuable contents of the store.
"This is what you wanted from the dump, right? Metal?" the youth asked with shining Mikado yellow eyes that gave and never took.
Raffian could not formulate speech. The worsening world is not a place where one receives charity or sees generosity. Seldom receiving anything, the word to express gratitude eluding him. It came in a flash. "Thank you, but I cannot accept all this. I appreciate your offer, but I don't think you understand. You have to keep everything you have, keep it all, keep it to yourself, or others will take advantage of it. Is there anyone who can watch over you?"
The girl looked thoughtful; Raffian couldn't tell whether she ruminated of his refusal or his query. Her head shook with certainty, a certainty that let him know he would not be leaving without some amount of the store's wares, no matter how much protest he gave. It didn't have any honor, but it was how it should be. Such was easy to believe. She had much, he had little; their needs and haves would equalize.
A pang of pity deluged his thoughts. His brow furrowed like a plowed field, and again he thought of Snail as if he was in the girl's situation. No amount of resourcefulness could adequately substitute a loving tutelary. And then he decided to reciprocate the girl's philanthropy.
"How would you feel living with me and my son?"
The girl shook her head. Apparently, she was not easily convinced. "This is my home."
"But I think, with all this to use for money, you could get out of this city. Out away into the country, you'd be safer there. Or maybe there's somewhere even better," he persisted. This time the girl did not even shake her head. Her finality was silent, yet audible.
She led him towards the metal with her gesture, and bid he take it with her look. After he had loaded an antiquated duffel bag and each of his numerous concealed pockets with forks and knives, spoons and whisks, and after they had descended to the primary floor, she regarded him with living sap-colored eyes.
Slinging the loaded duffel bag more comfortably around his shoulders, Raffian looked at her with gratitude and promised, "Tomorrow, I'll come around again to see you." And once she had bid him farewell, he stepped back out through the shimmering red door into the chasm, which looked decidedly brighter. It was then that he remembered something, a common communicative inquiry, which he had entirely neglected to inquire; the young girl's name.
"I completely forgot to ask your name!" he shouted jovially to the door that was already closing. It was as if the door was closing of its own accord, unable to remain open under its own slanted weight.
The door shut with a sound, and he stood for a moment, perplexed. He knocked on the door, without any response. It wasn't a thick door; he had closed it himself not minutes before. He tapped on it, and rapped on it, and eventually banged with all his might and no one rejoined him.
It was perturbing to him, but he couldn't find the words as to why. But the light had shifted its sitting, and shone with a dull, perfunctory luminance from an invisible place in the sky. It was time he returned home. Without any food. He sighed, self-disappointed, and worked his way back through the maze devised by the girl.
The alarm clock of smog-exhalating machinery grinding into the morning parted Raffian's eyelids faster than usual. Excitement brushed the sleep from his eyes and cleared his vision instantaneously; it was Christmas.
He donned his only outfit and reintroduced to himself the thoughts of where he had to go and what he must do. First, the necessity of currency. Lifting the coin purse with extreme care, he posited it into a pocket without arousing Snail. The door, which he had left ajar the night before to avoid its somnacisive sound, scraped out a gruff whine when he passed through it, then was silent. Snail still slept soundly under his shifty covers of ragged government cloth when Raffian left the hut of steel in the chemical dawn.
Compared to the department store he had seen the day before, the store he now stood in, being watched as if he had already looted the register and held the cashier by the muzzle of a gun, was a lone match next to a bushfire. On the dirty beige shelvetops that lined the devoid-of-wallpaper confines of the room were a pitiful dearth of goods. Seldom was there more than one of a particular brand. In one way, the stores of the present were similar to the archaic all-having, all-serving emporiums; they both had an assortment of wares, with no specific demographic of customer. Loose sheaves of paper (most already written on), old granola bars, dirtied glass objects of no use or value, specks of goods from better years passed, all could be found if one had the fortune and the punctuality to find it first.
Several other shifty-looking consumers browsed conspicuously as well. Only six others, besides the guards and the shopkeep, could come in, for matters of mass theft and riot protection. A woman near him tried sliding a marble from the stock into an unassuming sleeve. He wouldn't have noticed this if the seemingly omniscient eye of the grizzled shop owner hadn't seen the injustice from all conceivable angles and, pulling a worn automatic rifle from the table aside him, told her to make a choice between living and leaving his store for good. Her soot-colored face turned white through its grime envelope and she hurried away like a wounded animal. The owner kept the firearm snugly in his arms, a second away from ordering the rest of them out; he already did so with the contemptuous look on his face. Raffian hastened his perusing.
A practical glow emanated from somewhere on his left. His neck turned, and he nearly shivered at the mere concept of his premonition. There on the platform, effulgent in the window's glow with a shining silver helmet and a blazing interrobang insignia on his impressive black attire, stood Captain MindSweep. Raffian experienced a jolt of childhood; it had been years since his interests were for himself and not for Snail. This character had been his indisputable hero, the stuff of his dreams. Action figures had lived longer than many other institutions of the luxuriant, vanished world. Only recently were the substances previously allowed for such discretionary products as the MindSweep Quasar Wagon and the MindSweep Volcano Lair reallocated to industries purportedly necessary for the country's welfare and existence. For a split second, Raffian wanted this toy to himself. Greed unrealized, he knew that Snail would love it.
He gingerly took the doll to the front of the austere room, aware that all eyes were intently upon him and what he had chosen to buy. His body came to rest before the bellicose clerk and deposited the figurine on a foldout poker table. Tension pulled the two of them apart as if by the force of an explosion. Raffian's face was nearly excreting sweat, when he was set at ease by a filthy grin spreading the man's lips. Obviously, this person was not one given to chuckling, but he did so now with several unpracticed heaves of his chest. He seemed to share in the nostalgia which Raffian felt as warmth on the surface of his skin. The clerk unlocked his lead strongbox with a secreted key, and looked at Raffian expectantly, his smile starting to fade with uncertainty.
Raffian remembered himself. He produced the cheap pouch with the rich coins inside and slid them beatifically onto the fake wood, a sssthssthink sound accompanying the movement. The man's camaraderie returned, and he smiled as he took all of what Raffian had saved. He bid him farewell with unceremonious silence.
Outside, Raffian clutched the prize under a jacket wing. He rushed his unfed legs through a network of alleys to conceal his location from expectable followers. Once he was sufficiently away, he took another long, reminiscent look at Snail's present. He smiled at the luck, and went on his way to find the recycling center.
There was a stark contrast between the dirt-reflected sun and the cold sterilized light of the recycling center's interior. Government-operated, it had free-flowing energy while the destitute city around it did not, like lymph travelling among select nodes. It made Raffian feel cleaner just to stand under its hueless brilliance, but it also lent a dreamlike shine to the room. It must've been a sober dream, all the dirty faces clutching scraps or slivers of aluminum and tin, pieces of their houses or their neighbors' houses, whatever they could find that passed as metal. Behind a sandbag barricade adorned in barbed-wire spines, several dozen soldiers in various uniforms (which advertised the private corporations that owned them) stood resolute, not serving any function besides decoration until they were needed for their ghastly task. Each held a large rifle, their fingers prepped on the oiled triggers. Men and women wearing light blue masks and thick disposable gloves assayed the incoming materials and doled out currency accordingly. There seemed to be no end to the money. Wealth stood on one side and desire of wealth, forever a voyeur, on the other.
Raffian added himself to one of the multitude of lines, which extended from the barricaded dispensary to the far wall, each comprised of an uncomfortable amount of people. Eyes were everywhere, cataloguing what others had brought, planning and surveying, but none dared to move under the soldiers' weaponized supervision. He held the duffel bag protectively across his front.
After an undisclosed time that passed without a clock's measurement in the white room, and which could not be reasoned by the light of the sun above the windowless chamber, Raffian stepped affront of the razor-wire fountainhead. He rushed to get the metal minutiae out of his bag. The sound of the archaic zipper seemed to threaten three nearby soldiers; they hefted their fusils, glinting like obsidian, in his direction, still, quiet, and otherwise motionless. They still had their guns on him when he finished producing the various silverware and copper plates from the satchel.
The quality and surplus of stuff he conveyed to the teller seemed to startle all nearby onlookers. The soldiers remained mechanically fixated, but a flurry of muttered words of surprise came from other line-standers and some of those behind the barrier. Warily, Raffian unpacked the rest, mentally urged the dumbfounded clerk to hand him his gratifying wad of money, and armed his way through the jealous mob, which merely looked on under the pressure of the gazing guns.
Once outside, he inhaled nitrogen in paroxysmal breaths. He felt as if he had been holding in his air in the room, as if he was being cured and smoked before an audience of hungering mongrels. That had clearly been too much stock, a suspicious amount to bring at one time. Pulling his sweat-damp clothes from his body to allow his fervid skin a breath, Raffian walked through the late afternoon crowds. Back to the shanty, Snail, and safety, a fold of bills in a deeply buried pocket.
His dull eyes immediately brightened when his father entered the hut of rubbish. Raffian's eyes darkened at the sight of his woeful son, but another emotion besides grief was perceptible on Snail's young visage; indignance. Pain was sprinkled through the air like a sensory perfume, its origin rooted in his son's demeanor.
"What happened?" he asked.
Snail looked down, abashed. "I... I was out at the factory, looking for you to give you"" His shame showed sanguine in his face. "" I found some crackers and I wanted to share, but a woman saw them in my hand, and" she grabbed them, and hit me all over. I couldn't hold on, she was so mean" she got away."
Suddenly, an oil well of bubbling ferocity rose in Raffian's parched esophagus, boiled to over-flowing in his mouth. Shapes of violet and blue decorated Snail's swan-white skin where the woman had struck him, and where it wasn't bruised, it was red with embarrassment and confused crying. Raffian's giddiness over the money was obliterated at the sight of his progeny's disarray.
"Why didn't you wait for me to get back?" he said with an intractable tone of anger.
"I know you didn't eat yesterday, and I thought you wouldn't be back until later" I'm sorry." He moved to his father and embraced him as if holding onto an idea.
"I don't want you by that factory, you understand? Especially not alone. People are dangerous, and they're even more desperate there than around here. Never go there again, Snail; am I clear?"
Snail nodded, another profusion of blood rushing to the forefront of his face in a forceful blush. "I won't."
Raffian sighed, his exasperation cooled with oxygen, and he returned his focus to the goals he had mentally reiterated since the prior night. Recycle, restock, repeat. Reward. And check up on the girl.
"Don't beat yourself up," he said to Snail, patting him solidly on the shoulder. It was as if he hadn't said anything at all; Snail still appeared to be in agony. Seeing his clear discomfort, Raffian's mind reeled to concoct a course of action to ameliorate his attitude.
"Snail, you what day it is, right?"
Snail looked, still sad, but after a moment of reflection his entire face burst into glee and he shouted, "It's Christmas!"
"You're right buddy, it sure is. And look what I've got here"" Out came Captain MindSweep. Raffian braced himself for tangible joy.
"Oh, wow Dad!" Snail snatched it from his hand, unable to control himself. "So cool!"
Raffian beamed. "Merry Christmas, Snail." Snail couldn't hardly hear; already he concerted an applicable soundscape for the Captain's adventures, already he devised storylines, painting grand imaginary pictures with his words. Captain MindSweep had defeated monsters, gangsters, and other bad things, and he had not been here for five minutes. Their family had undoubtedly grown.
Raffian, though thoughtless in his over-joy, recalled the girl.
"Hey bud, how about you come with me? There's some errands that need to be done. I've got something you'd like to see."
"O" Okay." Already, a look of curious joy changed Snail's face, and he hurriedly gathered his coat and other accoutrements, and was soon urging Raffian to make haste.
The way back to the alleyway confounded him in the daylight; it was somehow more challenging to find than was his returning home in the lazy dimness of dusk. Eventually, the scarlet door rose before them, and Snail did not conceal his amazement.
"Wow! It's so clean! I've never seen anything shine like that!"
Reaching out with an unsure fist, Raffian produced a hollow sound with several rhythmic knocks.
There was a faint rapport on the other side that receded slowly in obscurity, as if gradually smaller persons were sequentially knocking with gradually lessening force. He knew there was no one inside.
Taken aback, Raffian puzzled monologually as to where the girl could be. There was no need to leave the store for food. A stash of prepackaged foods in a dormant cafÃ in a corner of the lower floor had caught his eye the day before. The door was rapt again, but its hinges remained fixed.
Snail was just as confused as his father. "Are you sure this is the right door, Dad? Maybe we went the wrong way..."
An oil-slicked duck flew by over the window of visibility in the alleyway. Its quack rebounded in the alley with a rapport similar to that of the knocks. Raffian, after knocking numerous additional times, resigned dispassionately. The door's faÃade remained the same, indifferent to the plight of those outside.
Maybe she's too far to hear, he postulated. He thought of other ways to get inside. The image of the completely barricaded storefront, blocked by cars hoisted onto their sides and wrought iron refuse, came to his mind but provided no alternative access to the interior. He felt trapped, as if in the prison yard while the safe cells inside remained locked. At any moment, he could be accosted by a shiv with a will. At least, he could have been in the prisons of the past; the modern penal system was more structured than historic public schools, and considerably safer than the outside.
As if blown by the wind, an idea lighted in Raffian's mind. What was it the girl had said? Daddy did something, touched the door some way he didn't before. Grasping the handle and somehow the world, he twisted and pulled until he made a difference. The door stood open in his hand.
Charcoal darkness on the inside. Raffian fumbled about on the wall and found the control box closed. Why weren't the lights on? He struggled to force the massive throwswitch from 'on' to 'off.' Once they went inside and could see it didn't matter how it came to be. Snail looked at Raffian with awe when the click of an openable door reached his ears, but his attention was stolen immediately thereafter by the alien room. Just like his father had, with mouth agape, he catalogued the untold wonders of the endless space.
Raffian, too, surveyed the room, desperately, for the girl. Searching under shoe department backless shortstools, in both genders' dressing rooms, amongst a forest of steel-rack clothes hangers draped with vegetation to be cut with machete. She was nowhere, all tangible traces gone. Even the sleeping area she had shared with her late parents was bare, entirely unperturbed.
"Dad, look at this." Snail waved a tiny fistful of socks with a thin arm. "What are they?"
Raffian couldn't answer. Not because he didn't know they were socks, but because his spirit felt drained as if a crucial plug had been pulled. Questions barely fazed him and he had no answers: Why hadn't she stayed? Why hadn't he insisted she go with him? Was she even real?
What would they do next?
He looked to Snail, who was enamored by polyester until he discovered the comparative charm of cloth, then was entirely blown away by nylon and subdued by the earthy texture of wool. He would give him what he wanted.
"What's wrong?" chirped Snail, trying to put his arms through the leg hole of a pair of denim boot cuts.
Raffian cleared his mind with a swipe, assisted by Snail's naivety. He put on a smile. "Just a bit hungry. Come on, let's grab some food."
Crumbs from bag-ensealed coffee cake avalanched down Snail's shirtfront. It was his eighth piece, and he had no intention of stopping to clean up. The brown sugar boulders could constitute another piece alone. Raffian sipped from a lukewarm labeled water bottle and scooped disinterestedly from a cellophane trail mix pouch, like an alpha lion would paw at a half-eaten meerkat carcass. He was still thinking to himself when a faraway knock resounded in the chamber.
Without conscious response from his brain, the chemical low of unrealized expectations immediately raised high and dry like a flag over a municipal boulevard, the likes of which he had seen flown from behind the barbed partitions separating the sufferers from the surfeitors. How he would climb up to meet that flag... The reverberating knocks sounded off in a way, too much force for a little girl to conceivably use. But nevertheless, he and Snail rushed back to the door and, they thought, a peaceable guest.
During the split second of no-thought of action, such as when one is in the intermediary time between grabbing a doorknob, starting to pull and revealing who stood on the otherside, Raffian had a revelation. This is not the girl, he thought. Let's complete the motion, his tensed arm's muscles decided separately. Slowing growing divide between frame and door, a yawning portal through which demons or angels might come...
When he saw the dancing devil shadows which fire paints on cave walls and alley brick, he knew who lay to ambush an unsuspecting door opener. Too late...
A hand on the other side helped him open the rest of the way. "Wha did I tell yeh, boys?" A sardonic guffaw of greed realized. "Everthin' yer hearts desire, right har. Let's git 'em!"
There was a human flood, a rush as if driven by hunger and inside the store was the free bread relief. Raffian's face went from a look of incomprehension to a look of horror to a look of desperate exertion as he wrapped Snail in his arms and moved the both of them against the wall, beside the door through which a flurry of weaponed wanters tried to fit through a too-small hole. Deliriously, he imagined he was covering close against a broad rock as wildebeest streamed past on both sides and sometimes overhead. But what was a wildebeest?...
As far as he could see into the store, no one was without a bludgeon or blade. There was the fire in which Beelzebub waited, crude sharpened iron on worn broom handles, aluminum splinters of cans affixed to faux-leather whips. He couldn't figure why they needed to be armed. Gladly, he would have shared; perhaps he wasn't the one they needed protection from.
Presently, the portal shut, the demons all inside. The fiends acted as particles migrating to lower pressure systems. They ransacked the jewelry department, upturned stacks insanely and stuffed useful and useless items alike into whatever means of carrying they had; one dirtily-clothed woman fashioned a crude sack from a wind breaker, which she then proceeded to stuff full of ladies undergarments, to be used for all the things for which they could be used. A small group puzzled themselves by the automatic staircase, unsure of its motion (one man, with obvious trepidation, stepped onto a moving black platform, perched for a moment like a flamingo, then lost his balance and fell backwards onto the befuddled spectators). Several fights or heated arguments or blatant killings could be seen, watched, heard and were.
Raffian still clutched Snail to himself, wary of the feeding frenzy. Maybe if they could get upstairs, they might hide until this had simmered and cooled, and maybe make it out with something they hadn't, prior, had... Looking to his right along the wall, what was that other plain red, distant door?...
He shuttled Snail with him in a fold of his coats, hiding him from the mania. They reached the chance-that-looked-like-a-door, not before dodging a mother and child gorging themselves on cafÃ foods like hyenas and a bare-knuckle brawl between two gruff men over a sheer dark-gray nÃgligÃe. Raffian read on the door, moments before hastily grasping the cold steel doorhandle, a large white "FIRE" that gave him pause. Why would a room lead to a fire? But he knew what was behind him. Not caring whether he would enter into an inferno or salvation, Raffian burst through and slammed the resistant door behind.
This wasn't an inferno. Raffian didn't exactly know what it was, except that is was cool. A cold light-gray room with multi-colored pipes running vertical on the wall. This place wasn't of fire, it was in case of fire. He led Snail up the soft-clay steps to the second floor, tempted and curious as to where the steps that continued might go, what he might see from the rooftops. He pushed through the heavy door.
The scene above the tumult below was much less heart racing. The Neanderthalic group below had rediscovered the primitive tool of the escalator, and now rifled through displays of possible room layouts and the store's ample kitchen section upstairs. They paid no mind to the father and son who crept past and took refuge under the cramped cash register area. The sounds of looters were like thunder and rain, this small place of safety like a shallow cave.
How long they crouched there, neither Snail nor Raffian could say. The animal sounds around them reached a cacophonous crescendo, a mind-breaking mush that seemed to rattle Raffian's cortex, or him around it. They drew closer together, finding solitude in the other's being. Muffled as if downstairs, Raffian could hear a cry, a collective of voices, with a common cause. He wasn't sure of what that cause may be, until he heard the supranatural crackling and smelled the fumes of flame.
React as if primal. Snatch up your child. Survey the situation. See realization on soiled faces that run down black stairs in a simultaneous sprint, end up a sprained heap on neat tile floor. Take another route instead. Charge through red door. Stop Snail from toppling down the steps. Drift through next door in a survival trance. Halt aghast in the doorframe.
Blood orange painted the walls and basked the room in an otherworldly hue. Everything and body had a dynamic scarlet cast. For the people, it was the confused buffet of snow in a blizzard. It was the natives fleeing the creeping tidal wave unleashed by a volcano. Raffian couldn't focus his eyes for all the whirling action they perceived. His cognitive center scrambled for a direction, for orders to carry out.
A dragon's breath hit him fully in the face. He staggered back with the smoke, further disoriented by the fumes and sounds of panic. Snail coughed. Raffian was taken back to the spring haze and pollen drifting lazily like explosive-laden bombers in a war, heavy in the air, needing to drop their weight on any and all, even innocents. Before realizing that it would asphyxiate his son all the same, Raffian wrapped a broad arm around Snail's mouth and nose and rushed into the furnace.
The spiraling tornado of fire absorbed him immediately, whirling him up at once into its chaotic focus. The flame tornado possesses a unique meteorological anatomy, as far as wind-based natural "disasters" go; it lacks a peaceful center, an eye in the storm watching out for those in danger. Thus, the fire tornado is blind and destroys everything equally. Raffian and Snail traveled its circumference, dodging bandits drunk off their own greed, avoiding human vacuums that still stuffed themselves and their rucksacks despite the danger, sidestepped living corpses with melting features or died from the wounds inflicted by their friends. They moved with one mind, the mind of an animal surrounded by a posse of its predators. Surrounded. No openings appeared to them. Time for the feeding.
Raffian caught a whiff of something like nitrogen and oxygen. The slight and sudden chill stung his sweated face like a wet slap. He wheeled about to see the red door back out to the alley and safety closing with a wordless futility. All others in the room were engaging in a pell-mell race to get outside. Few tried to stop others from succeeding them; it was a selfish plight, selfish to the point of benefitting others. It was a gold rush, a land-buying jamboree, only now the air itself would be portioned and claimed, and Raffian would have to stake his own or lose his and his son's life.
He towed Snail like an ox drawing a Red Ryder. He accelerated and held it there and pushed against the people and the air rushing against him that wasn't moving in the direction he was moving in as fast as he was moving in it and new sweat broke out in uncomfortable places, pioneers of perspiration settled in crannies under his leather patchcoats. Sweat lubricated the bond between his and Snail's hands, but he held fast and sealed it with new muscle. Almost, nearly, agonizingly close to liberation...
They were stopped by the same hand that had unleashed the carnage.
It was gnarled and wooden like the splintered hull of a sunken galleon. It was not a manicured mannequin's main (hand in French; a long-lost language). The knuckles were split and scarred over roughly, broken and left to heal without care after countless, reasonless fistfights for things he couldn't have or prove otherwise. It had a light chestnut cropping of thin hairs where it hadn't been rubbed bare, like clearings among the copses. It belonged to the man who had forced open the door, and it pressed superciliously against Raffian's sternum.
He was stunned to be stopped, to decelerate so choicelessly. He requisitioned the hand's owner with a look that cried Why?, but the man was not to be swayed.
"Where're you off teh, then?" he smirked murderously. "Why don't yeh stay awhile? Grab a few thins, 'fore ther up in flames!"
Raffian was aghast. The smirking, pugnacious man moved back towards the door, his hand still extended and held aloft as if still forcing Raffian's chest to remain motionless. He allowed several others to scamper past and out, then followed. He threw one final curling lip at Raffian's face, then sealed the escape.
Raffian regained his velocity instantly as he lunged for the door. Both hands on the heating doorhandle could not make it yield; it was either held by the other side, or perhaps locked of its own, cruel accord. A swear of desperation hissed out from his lips, and he nearly broke. A sudden conflagration of the wall beside him saved him and spurned his legs to move intowards the safer center of the room. Groups of condemned half-innocents took his place at the door to bang for mercy or to roast alive in the attempt.
He and Snail moved from place to place, each one inevitably pervading with fire and forcing another emigration. The shoe department, the belt racks, the collared shirt section, each submitting to the high degrees of heat without a word of dissuasion. Dejectedly, they eventually came to the base of the evergreen tree, which somehow remained untouched by the jutting fangs of flame all around. They huddled against the just-for-show presents on that crisp Christmas morning with a pleasant fire crackling on all sides.
Snail seemed to understand there was no getting out. He had been around death each day, but the charred bodies he saw and could smell and knew had once been moving, had seen them doing things shortly before. It forced reality upon him, held up mortality in a horrendous show-and-tell. Despite this, his look wasn't of terror; it was mature. Resigned. Raffian would have preferred to see fear in his face, fear reflecting his own, but it wasn't there. His heart broke and burned in the blaze.
Snail's emotion changed without warning. He smiled, apparently remembering something. He fished in a pocket in a coat that was a miniature of Raffian's own, and drew out a plain, unadorned, simple, serious, and professional-looking dark gray razor.
"Dad? I... I meant to give you this this morning, so you could try it out. I've been saving since spring, everything, to get it. So you could shave and go back to work."
Raffian felt a new fluid on his face besides sweat that was just as saline. Beaming, forgetting his trepidation, he reached to Snail's head and kissed his brow with pride. He took the razor in steady hands and admired his son's adroit perception. A razor, he mused with a wry smile. All he got for his son was fire.
Just then and for a few moments after, the crashing-splintering sound of the flame-deconstituted banister breaking from the second floor and plummeting earthbound made them crowd ever-closer together, to escape the surrounding wreckage that blockaded them and the tree. They felt the heat like tight clothes in sweltering weather that they couldn't take off. Raffian shed several layers of jackets and laboriously fanned the encroaching flames. Snail grabbed another and strained alongside him.
The futile struggle ran its course, and the son and father retreated back even closer to the tree, huddled against its cool, moisture-retaining boughs and watched their demise coming nearer like an advancing animal in the night. Raffian squeezed his sweat-stung eyes shut. Why had fate turned against him at points in his life when all could have improved? Sash had been lost when their love had still been in its infancy. The young girl, a pure spot on a grimy surface, had been lost as well. When he finally discovered a source of income that came pre-packaged with hope, the department store, his nascent plans were quashed and set aflame by greedy others, out of his control. It seemed to him that the cogs were rubbing him the wrong way, their grinding teeth crushing him and the whole machine working to ends that were against him anyway. But why then must Snail be engaged by the malefact gears? Snail was just another good thing ruined, a jonquil ray of light obscured by a raven's wing that was always in flight. The shadow cast over both their lives.
Raffian's hand was brushed by a miniature of his own. Snail sought his father's hand through the dark green tangle. When he found it, he gripped the broad hirsute digits with a compassionate strength. Raffian choked on emotion in his throat. Holding his boy's mortal hand, his killable hand, flames licking devilishly at his back, nothing to look forward to but the Pakistan green on an evergreen tree. Death spun his scythe like a baton and watched their misfortune over the peaks of flame.
There, with the hundred-degree physical heat literally drawing on his back lines as if a torrid whip, Raffian heard an unfamiliar noise. A whirring, activating sound like some ancient mystic technology come back to life and carrying out its long ago designated purpose. It was this invisible complex language that machines speak that killed the feeling in Raffian's back. All his senses focused on it. He tasted it through the smoke, saw it through the distorted air, had faith in its slight vibrations. The heat and the fire and his son and death and none of it mattered, because at that moment of hopelessness and ending, the sprinklers came ON.