BY MARK SLADE
Pete never thought he would he would get old. Who does? One day your working in a factory making toasters, the next your sitting at your breakfast table reading of past friends in the obituaries.
Pete sighed, drank his black coffee, wishing he had sugar to add to it. There was a blocking of sugar imported, because of the war that's been going on for twenty years. He didn't understand what sugar had to do with stupid men killing each other with stupid guns. He didn't care who was wrong, who was right. End the damn thing, so he could have damn sugar in his damned coffee.
It was times like this, Pete wished Mira was alive. She would get him through it.
Before things changed, men with black hearts and black shirts took over the world, Mira captured a young man's heart, and even after death, she still held it tightly in her hands .Mira was a tall, red haired woman who loved tea and water colors. They had met at a museum, before those men with black-hearts took the museums from everyone.
After a few months of seeing each other in secret, she took him to meet her family, her Father a professor, her brother—a professional bicyclist, her Mother—a poet—did not like her relationship with Pete. He was not well-read, nor was he into sports. In time they accepted the fact he was only a worker in a factory.
Mira and Pete only spoke of having children at night in their prayers. No children were given to them. They were not bitter. They poured every bit of love into each other. Thought of nothing but each other. And were definitely dependent upon each other. When Mira died at the age of forty-five from tumors in her stomach, Pete did not know how to live. He learned over next few years. Just by routine. When the factory decided he could not work for them anymore, as a result of a non-conformist petition he signed; a paper Pete did not understand to begin with: He found little joys in the government sanctioned apartment, government sanctioned papers and government sanctioned radio shows.
Most of his time is spent looking out his window and going for walks within the 24th parallel. It is an imaginary line that run from one end of the City to the other end. Anyone found walking past the 24th is shot on spot. This, the Ministers say, is to protect the people of the City.
At the end of the 24th is a wall of stone and brick. It is guarded twenty four hours, whether by man, or camera. The City was never a nice place to live, as Pete could attest. But it was tolerable. Now, you and your neighbors hardly speak, for certain subjects were forbidden to speak of. The City, which everyone knows, has an abundance of trash build up ever since the machines that were employed to gather it, had broken down. The City had poured all of it's funds in protecting itself from other Cities that were at war.
Pete sighed. Another day, he thought. He turned slightly, but quickly repositioned himself in full view of the City outside his window.
“There he is again,” Pete said to himself.
On the street, during hustle and bustle of men and women in their daily work outfits, streetcars zipping through and cars blasting their horns and sitting idly in single file lines;Pete saw a man in a black trench coat and wide brim fedora, leaning against a lamppost. He was just standing there, smoking a cigarette, watching. Maybe looking up at Pete, whose apartment stood at the top of the two story building.
The man wasn't a tenant. Pete knew all ten of them.
There was the Silvia sisters. Sixty year old twins that lived in the bottom apartment. Next to them was Mr. Carter, who played his radio nonstop, even when he was at work in the Government sanctioned grocery store. There was Mr. and Mrs. Cable and their two children. Mr. Cable was constantly working on the air conditioning of the building. Above them lived Mrs. Chester and her cats. Under government restrictions, all citizens were allowed one pet, but everyone in the building knew the old woman had three cats, all of them calico, and all three look the same. Then there was the school teacher Valerie, who lived next door to Pete.
He heard the rattling of cans and the scrambling sounds from plastic bags outside his door. Pete rose from his chair and quickly ran to the door. He was beside himself. Over joyful because toady was the day that groceries were delivered in the block Pete lived in.
He touched the door and noticed a scrape of paint missing as well as the lock and chain. The Ministry said all was safe inside the City---no need for locks and chains. The enemy would never get to the citizens.
Pete opened the door to find Valerie gathering her groceries in her arms. She was struggling with four bags and a canister of salt the door to her apartment slammed shut. Pete looked down at his bags---only two lay in the hallway. For a moment he was puzzled by Valerie having two more than he, but he resolved it in his head that the Economic committee made a mistake. According to their rules, everyone was to have equal amount of everything.
“Let me help you,” Pete said, smiling.
“No, no,” Valerie said in a raspy voice.
Pete ignored her wishes, took a few bags from her arms. “It's not neighborly to not help one another.” He said.
“Well,” She pushed a few strands of chestnut brown hair around her ears. “I suppose your right.”
It was obvious she was uneasy with him. She kept her head down as she followed far behind inside the apartment. Her apartment was very nice, even scented with pine. Pete could stand there all day breathing it in. Her floors were carpeted. That too was puzzling. Such extravagances were not permitted. Her walls were decorated with paintings from years ago. More extravagances?
Valerie took the bags from his hands and placed them on the dining room table.
“It's very.....nice in here,” Was all he could manage to say, looking around.
She went to the door, kept it from closing. She looked up at him, just for a second, then her eyes were back to the carpet. Her head moved in a strange routine, from side to side, and her lips opened and shut as if she were reading to herself.
“Thank you,” She said softly, almost an afterthought. He noticed the faint blue of her eyes. He didn't think there were blue eyed people anymore.
“I should go,” Pete pointed to the hallway. “Get my own groceries.”
He sighed, exited. The door closed immediately. Pete grabbed the two bags, curled them in his arms. He pushed his way through his apartment and let the door close by itself.
He realized how lonely he really was.
The next day Pete went for a walk.
He walked past the school house to catch a glimpse of Valerie. He didn't see her. He found himself thinking of her quite a bit. He stopped at the government sanctioned cafe and stood at the corner hoping to catch her walking by and offer to walk her home. He didn't see her. He stopped by the trolley depot station. Maybe, just maybe, he would see her using her government sanctioned tickets for fare. He didn't see her.
Pete took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped beads of sweat from his brow. He always hated it when it became muggy. He looked to the sky to see if any relief was insight. Only deep blue sky as far as the eye could see. He sighed, put his handkerchief back in his shirt pocket. He noticed the man in the black trench coat and wide brim fedora standing at the ticket booth. He was smoking a cigarette, blowing smoke rings in the air and looking very smug.
Pete always hated smug people.
A trolley pulled in the depot and came to a screeching halt. Pete turned to see the trolley, then he looked back and the man was gone.
Pete walked on.
Every few seconds, he looked behind , to see if the man was following. He only saw others, drearily ambling along to their own destinations. He saw the guards at their posts, making sure no one entered the 24th , no one left the 24th. He'd reached a point, just past the pillars of the overpass, where the wall surrounded the City.
Just at the edge of the wall's gate were two soldiers screaming at a couple of boys on their bikes. The boys, one from the left, one from the right, would circle around and streamline toward the gate. Then speed off as fast as they could, the two soldiers chasing after them.
From a distance, Pete could see an opening at the corner where the wall and the gate met. Corrosion on the wall led to a hole. And weather-beaten rock lay on the street in piles of rubble. Pete was curious. He eased himself to the hole in the wall, making sure the guards hadn't noticed him. He placed a hand through the hole to be certain no electrical current protected the space.
It was clear.
Pete looked over his shoulder. He saw the guards still trying to catch the boys, all concerned was screaming, whooping and hollering, cursing.
Adrenaline was rushing through his veins, his heart was racing. He pushed his head through the hole.
Pete saw not another City that was the enemy, but a field full of green grass and finches flying high up in the clear blue sky. The air was clean, not stifling or stunk of gasoline. There was hills the shape of a woman's breast. Trees, many kinds, stood in uneven lines and were more grand than the stories his parents told him as a child.
He sensed he should move back inside the the City. But he was tempted to go all the way to the other side of the wall and run. Never look back.
Pete couldn't do it. He was too afraid. Severe punishment at the re-education center, if not shot on spot. He caught his breath, eased himself back through the hole, back into the City. That is where the flower was caught in his sight.
It was beautiful.
It's petals were shaped like circles and lavender colored. It was in a patch of grass just outside the wall. The stem was long and drooped over as if it were kneeling for a prayer. He reached inside the hole and plucked the flower. No time for a second glance. He carelessly stuffed the flower in his trouser pocket, keeping his hand inside to protect it, somehow, was a thought in his head. He put his other hand in the other trouser pocket. Pete kept his head down as he steadied his pace away from the wall.
He still heard the two guards struggling with the boys on their bicycles. Before he knew it, Pete was back at the pillars of the overpass. He stopped, wearily leaned against one. He closed his eyes, catching his breath. He felt for the flower. He found it. A smile came across his face. He dared not reveal it.
If the authorities knew, oh.....no.......they couldn't know that he knew all these years the citizens of this City had been lied to. Nature had been outlawed as many things had. But it was outlawed because outbreak of disease was said to have been caused by plants and the pollen it brought with them. In the City, government sanctioned scientist created oxygen and the stale air was pumped through the vents everywhere on the streets as well as in all buildings. And that oxygen made many people sick in their lungs.
In the middle of the night, he heard the sound of ten boots on the pavement of the street below.
Pete wrestled with the sheets on his bed to free himself. He rushed to his open window. He saw four black shirt guards hanging outside the apartment building. Pete felt his heart sink to his stomach. He quickly ducked from the open window. He clung to the wall beside the window. A line of golden -yellow light from the lamppost below crossed his face.
That man …...Pete thought. He saw me with the flower.
Pete heard more footsteps on the stairs. Shouts from the guards demanding the door be opened. That's it. They are rounding up the whole building because of him. Because of that damned flower. Then he heard iron on wood, and crunching. A loud shrill of a woman, then her weeping, pleading. They must be ransacking the place...... furniture being turned over, dishes and glass breaking. At last, boots marching in unison on the steps and out on the street pavement.
Pete cautiously leered out the window. He saw the man in the black trench coat giving orders to the black shirts. They had Mrs. Chester by the arms, two guards. By the side of the apartment building two more guards stood holding her cats, one guard with two in each hand. He held them apart from his body and another guard placed a pistol to the one cats head and fired. Mrs. Chester went limp in a black shirts arms. He forced her to watch the other two cats being shot and tossed in the gutter.
They dragged her away, her bare feet scraping pavement.
The man in the black trench coat stayed behind, leaned against the lamppost and lit a cigarette. He pushed the brim of the fedora up from his eyes. He exhaled smoke from moistened lips. Watching. He was always watching. But mostly facing Valerie's window.
It dawned on Pete that this fellow was not just there to spy on everyone in the building, but especially to watch the school teacher.
There was knock at Pete's door.
At first loud. Then three small taps. He caught his breath. Slowly, Pete moved to the door. He knew it wasn't the man in black. He was still watching the building. He wondered if it was one of the guards left behind to get one more tenant.
Again, loud knocking at his door.
Afterward there was a soft whispering of his name. It was a female voice.
“Please open,” the voice said. “It's Valerie. From next door.”
Pete opened the door slowly. He saw those faint blue eyes through the crack of the door.
“Please let me in,” She said, breathless. “I'm frightened.”
Pete opened the door and Valerie burst in, taking control of the door. She quickly shut it, leaned her head against the faded polish of it's wood. She wept. She tried to catch her breath between sobs. Pete was lost. He didn't know if he should put his arm around her or not. When he went to touch her, she turned to him. Pete took a few steps back.
“He's watching me,” Valerie said.
Pete pointed to the window. “I see he's out there. You sure he's watching you?”
“Just as sure as the sun rises.”
Pete moved to the window, glanced out a second, then looked at her. “What would he be looking at you for?”
She didn't answer right away. She bit her lower lip, wiped tears from her eyes, those faint blue eyes.
“I guess,” Pete brushed his nose with a hand. “ I guess, a person doesn't have to do anything to have the secret police watching them.”
“I should just tell you.” Valerie moved closer to him, but out of the way of open window and prying eyes.
Pete became uneasy. He moved back a step again, placing himself firmly against the wall “Tell me what?”
“I'm Winston Lewis daughter.”
A smile crossed Pete's face. “The radical?”
“The radical,” Valerie said. “The one and only Winston Lewis who--”
“Who tried to blowup Central government offices,” Pete finished for her. “ Start a revolution, restart a Democratic government. 'Freedom for all, at any cost'. I heard his speech a few years ago in the town square.”
“He actually thought he could change things. He didn't realize
most people are cowards and like the status qua , even if if it means less freedom.”
“Or no freedom at all.” Pete peeked out the window. The man was gone. “I think he just didn't have the right tools----” Pete had a thought. “I have something to show you.”
Pete went to his bed, a small cot. He took from under the cot a box and removed the top. Valerie looked on. Not knowing what to expect, he made sure she was able to get to the door at a moment's notice by having a clear path.
Pete took a few pictures from the box, glanced at all the ones of him and Mira. He felt a bit guilty. About to share a huge secret with another woman other than Mira. But Mira wasn't there......He put her picture face down on the bed. Best not to think about it. He took the pressed flower from a book of poems by T.S. Elliot, long outlawed as weak, nonsensical information for the masses.
Pete stood, held the flower behind his back as walked toward Valerie. He exhaled as he reluctantly showed it to her. Valerie's eyes widened with shock.
“Where did you get that?” She whispered.
“Outside the gate,” Pete pronounced.
“There is no way you could get to the gate.”
Pete shrugged. “I did. You want to hold it?”
Valerie nodded yes. She took it from Pete's hands carefully, as if it were a dangerous or toxic chemical that blow the two of them sky high. “All these years,” She said, examining the petals, even bringing it to her nostrils, then lowering it as if she'd committed a sin.
“They've been lying to us,” Pete put his hand on the stem, then on Valerie's, kept it there a few minutes. He helped her hand raise the flower closer to her nose. She breathed in the scent, it's soft lilac smell was like a rush of senses invading her overcrowded mind. She closed her eyes, wishing the moment would last for ever. “Saying that the earth's atmosphere had polluted our bodies. That it's atmosphere has destroyed most of nature......and that it's a City next to us...the enemy......” Pete's nostril flared up. “I didn't see a City, Valerie.”
Their eyes met. She wanted to hear more.
“I saw a bird,” He continued. “Trees....grass. No City with Weapons of mass destruction aimed at our heads as I've heard on the radio.”
Valerie handed the flower back to him. “Put this back where it's safe. Meet me in my apartment.”
She turned on her heels and exited Pete's apartment, closing the door quietly behind her. Pete took another look out the window. The man in the black trench coat was still gone. Pete felt relief.
He opened her door. The lights dim. She'd put up a blind. Pete hadn't seen one of those in years. They were not allowed. No reason, Central government says, if your City has no secrets, so you too, should have no secrets. He wandered through the apartment, uneasily.
“Come to my bed,” Valerie spoke from a darkened corner.
Pete jumped. He wasn't aware she was in the apartment.
He did as she said, he came to her. She sat on her bed, the sheets and covers rolled to the end of the bed, hanging on the bedpost. He sat beside her, his heart racing. She looked into his eyes, swallowed hard.
“Are you ready to see what I am going to show you?” She said. The pupils in her faint blue eyes were jumping.
Pete drew in a breath, let out a long exhale. “Yes, of course.”
Valerie flipped back the covers and sheets to expose a 19 inch black and gold television. Only one large button was above the speaker. No need for more buttons since only one station was provided for years.
Pete laughed. He reached out, touched black screen. “I have not seen one of these since the mass re-education broadcasts.”
“Blanked out every ones thoughts, or so they thought.”
“They wont admit it failed,” Pete said.
“No one will admit failure. You can't achieve success without it,” Valerie touched Pete's hands as they both felt the screen's width, then the length, in an insane cycle.
“I often sleep with it on.”
Pete smiled. “What do you see when it's on?”
“Nothing,” Valerie was without emotion, robotic. “No channel’s exist.
No signal is being put out.” She pressed the button and it lit up red. A scrambled salt and pepper snow danced constantly across the screen. A loud droning noise pierced Pete's ears. He threw his hands over them, scrunched his eyes shut. Valerie took a piece of cardboard and placed it over the speaker.
She removed Pete's hands from his ears. She leaned in and kissed him, gently laying him on the bed, hi head flattening her pillows. She laid next to him and resumed placing her lips upon his. He impatiently accepted the kisses, brushing her hair with a hand.
“We could leave together, this City....I know the way.....” Valerie shushed him with a hand over his mouth. She bent down, kissed him again, long and caressing.
A hand grabbed Pete by his shirt collar and pulled him out slumber. He fell hard to the floor, feeling the sting across his cheeks. He saw ten or more black shirted guards standing above him. He felt his heart sink to his stomach. They had circled him, their rifles and gold-plated Walther PPK's pointed at the temple of his head. Someone pushed through them. It was the man in the black trench coat. His face had been eaten up by acne, it left deep crevices in face.
His tiny eyes danced as he said with clenched teeth, “You are hereby charged with treason against the Central government. Trying to Poison the citizens of the City with lies.”
The man in the black trench coat pushed the flower in his face, crushing it and rubbing the remains of it all over Pete's face.
Pete began to speak and a gun butt smacked him in his mouth. Blood spurted from his top lip, dribbled down his chin. They grabbed Pete by his hair, but before they dragged him, he grabbed the crushed flower and rolled into a fist. They pulled him up to standing position. Pushed him forward down the stairs. Pete saw eyes peering out of cracked doors.
He lifted the flower high above his head screaming, “They are lying to us! There is no enemy except them! There is Nature!”
Just as Pete took the third step a guard put his gold-plated gun to the right side of his head and squeezed the trigger.
Blood repainted the stairwell.
Pete, still clinging to the flower fell to his knees and rolled down the stairs to the apartment complex's double doors. His lifeless body lay in a deformed manner for a few minutes. Valerie appeared, looked downward at Pete. She bit her lower lip, fought back any kind of emotion.
“The Central government praises your willingness to tell the TRUTH, Miss Lewis,” The man in the black trench coat said.
Valerie looked at him, but couldn't find anything to say to him.
He sighed, his upper lip curled up. “It had to done for the sake of all.”
A guard walked by, kicked Pete. He rolled across the street pavement into a gutter, still clutching the flower tightly in his hand.