The Love Market: Chapter Six

I learned about storms from the screens, and I wish I hadn’t because I saw how they hurt people, killed people, made people sad, and struggle to keep living. Peter says we’re lucky to live away from where bad storms happen anymore. I asked if maybe the cyclones would figure out where we were and flip the House, but he said it didn’t work like that. I felt safe then that no storm would hurt us in the House, but I worry, for when the day comes, and I might have to leave the House.”

It had been a long road from home to Dahl’s, a long way for Fatimah from the holy lands. The lands of promise, plague, and famine, of war and eternal bloodshed, is how Piper knew them. But the longest road that day was from Boldwins to the last active grocer, Walden’s. Piper had only a few of her ration cards with her, but it hardly mattered. Just as she had told Fatimah, there was nothing to be had, bought or stolen, at Walden’s or anywhere else. On their trip over, she had explained to Fatimah that nearly anything she might have been told about the Americas was a fallacy or an exaggeration.

She had been told that America was the height of decadence and excess, the fattest country in the world, literally and figuratively. Her parents had arranged for her to travel by underground means, out of the east and into the heart of America with Aamir. Yet, they led her astray just as they had been led to believe such falsehoods by their government. A dire mistake, especially when the one to pay for it was such a beautiful young woman in a world where looks, feminine most especially, were a commodity.

The truth was, everything was at a premium if it were available at all. Most domestic goods, anything that could be farmed or sourced locally, were available, yet stocks were minimal. In the cities, Piper had come to find that almost everything was picked over and otherwise fit to be discarded. It took too long to get things in from the country or the factories, those which were still in operation. So even with her few ration cards, there wasn’t much to choose from that would be fit for a human or enough to go around between the two.

Still, they managed a half-stale loaf of bread and some shriveled fists sold as apples. Oil was still plentiful. It was hoarded when the food crisis first hit but either ceased back by interior military officials or used as barter when those holding stores realized they had no use for it. So with an opaque bottle, only about five ounces, Piper was content. It wouldn’t be anything pleasant, toast and diced apples, but it could hold them over for another day. The more considerable concern was the purchase of a rubberized bladder containing the purest water one could find for sale. It was drinkable, even if it reeked of ammonia, but it was the nectar of the gods compared to tap water.

With their collection of hardly-filling morsels, the two exited into the gray-washed world and headed toward Gregor’s flat. On their way, they trailed past the cafe, turned home, and now transformed into a temporary derelict. The children were gone, and so was Aamir. They poked around inside and found what scavengers hadn’t taken a crack at yet. Half a pack of menthol cigarettes and one full, still sealed box of saltines that had expired over a year prior. Though it might have been presumptuous, Piper agreed with Fatimah’s suggestion to take all of it. There was a chance, very slim, but a chance that Aamir and his boys were coming back, but Fatimah had a certainty they were gone now.

As they wound their way around one of the few apartment blocks that remained lawfully inhabited, Fatimah explained the direness of the war effort at home. Things had heated up on all sides of her home. Civil war and strife in the south, threats of nuclear war between east and west, and from the north, a horde that sought one thing, the extinction of Fatimah’s people. She had been promised that war was not the norm in America, only to find that in place of battle, there was a domestic struggle to survive where the draft did not spirit away the last of the able-bodied.

In the lobby of Gregor’s apartment complex, Piper rang the same unit she had visited the day before. The tone and call went on for a few minutes before she conceded that his father was asleep and Gregor might be out looking for work. When they turned to leave, the scratchy old voice crackled through the speaker, “What do you want?”

“Hi. I was wondering if Gregor was home? It’s Piper if he asks.”

“The boys home alright. I’ll ring the lift. You take it on up, young lady,” he muttered, seemingly not wholly concerned.

The lift door slid open halfway before squeaking slowly another few inches and surrendering to the decrepitude that a lack of maintenance brings about. Piper forced the door further to allow Fatimah inside before helping close the mechanisms to close. The elevator had seen better days but was in the best shape, all things considered, when it came to the apartment complex. Though panels were coming loose from the inside, grotesque stains marred the floor, and half the buttons weren’t lit, it presented some class in a place lacking any. After pressing for the floor, a sickly hum filled the cell as tired pulleys dragged the box heavenward, wheezing and rasping as they barely reached the level.

The elevator exited just a few feet from the stairs, leading Piper down the same corridor in the same direction she had tred just the day before. Had it not, Piper thought she might have gotten turned around. Before they moved on, Piper searched the growing shadows of the corridor. The tramp from the day before was absent aside from the scraps of life that had cluttered about him in the corner. It was no cause for concern to an ordinary passerby, but faced with homelessness and joblessness, Piper wondered what became of such people. A mysterious stain, likely no more than the man’s waste, sat right where his head had been the other day. The hope was that it wasn’t more than relieved fluids and not the more grim reality of the end.

They needn’t knock when they reached Gregor’s door. His father waited with a welcoming smile that ran contrary to the commotion he had caused the other day. Yet, as though they were his own kin, he welcomed them in and offered what little he had. A handicapped person, save those in the Love Market, net only a handful of change in these dire times. Without Gregor’s pay stubs and Maxwell’s military dispensations, the old man would likely have been curled up at the end of the hall, waiting for the end.

“Is Greg in his room?”

The smile began to evaporate at the mention of his son, “Well, he certainly isn’t at work today. Must be ‘sick’ as he says. We all know he’s sick.”

“Actually, I don’t know if he told you they shut down the plant. We were going to tell him not to bother going to Dahl if he got any word about that. I was sort of worried he might have been…” Piper lingered a minute, unsure if she should divulge the morning’s events. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t think a rough-around-the-collar oldster like Gregor’s father couldn’t handle hearing it, but with his eldest son on the frontline, it felt taboo to speak on.

He scratched at skin the flaked, dead, old, and caked with grit that a shower would fix if he bothered with them, “Well, like I said, he’s been in his room all day. I slid the mail to him; but, well you’re young, you know all about those headsets and the ladies, if I’m lucky ladies, on them are for,” he trailed off staring at Fatimah, “Maybe you could wake up Greg, and your friend could keep me company?”

“Funny old man. We won’t be staying long,” Fatimah remarked before staring daggers at Piper.

It took only a moment for Piper to get the idea. It wasn’t going to be an extended visit. Despite that, she had an intense urge to tell Gregor to pop on his set the second she stepped in. To have him engage in whatever desire he required, just to put Fatimah off. The idea flashed for an instant, nothing lingering beyond a quiet impulse that sunk back into the void. Instead, she knocked politely as she could and waited for an answer. The flat was silent, every breath held, waiting for the reply, even a murmur and ruckus from the far side. She knocked again before too much time could pass and allowed worry to sprout in her head. It was impossible to say then, but for a moment, Piper thought of Saul taking himself out with the rest of the factory as it collapsed, Kris’ lack of options, and her own reality. Gregor could be gone already.

Without another knock, another second wasted, Piper jammed the door open and toppled over a mound of garbage just behind the door that could have been Gregor for its weight. She was concerned that he might have been just ready to open the door. She checked the loose pile on the floor. No one was under it; a mound of advertised faces was the only human entity to be seen in the discarded heaps. So many vouchers, flyers, and so on from the Market, love stains across the face gone chalky and crackled via folding. Piper’s eyes immediately went to the bed, where the only thought of Gregor were the stains and the indent in the cheap mattress that had probably been used for decades. There was nowhere else to check. The room was empty.

Piper emerged, “He’s not home. Are you sure he didn’t go out and just not tell you?”

“I’ve got my ear to the ground on things. The pad on the wall in my room triggers whenever someone comes or goes. I know whenever you’re here, when you leave, or whoever does. Keeps an eye out for intruders, that’s the point, but hardly does anyone want to risk it to steal a little clean water or warmth, but maybe for the kid’s electronics.”

“And he would have been inside, not intruding. Could it have been disabled internally?” Fatimah offered.

Now the man’s leer faded to a scowl, “No. Not without going in my room and doing it directly.”

“I’ll check the other room; someone check the bath,” Piper instructed before entering the neatly kept cube that was Raymond’s room.

At first, the old man protested, then muttered for Fatimah to check the bathroom while he went to his room. Piper didn’t bother with either for a moment as she visually stripped a room already spartan in design. There was a bed, flat and clean, with well-dressed sheets that maybe had been sat on once after being put together. The walls were bare save a clock that had long since stopped ticking, its battery removed by Greg likely enough. There was a small ledge, the only window in the house. On it sat a few odds and ends and a photo. The picture was of the family before one of the wheels fell off the cart. Piper could see why Gregor had his problems and why his mother had so easily slipped away from them.

“God damn it!”

Fatimah was already back at the entryway waiting for Piper, “Think he found out.”

“He did it, that little shit. He turned off the security system. I could have been robbed or killed. When I get my hands on him…”

Piper ignored the irate banter for a moment as she sighted a note on the counter in the kitchenette. It was in the rough scrawl of a boy who never knew how to write, who had only had to put words together on a computer. The characters were there, legible as Piper’s own script, though with their own variant of mutilation. ‘Whoever ends up reading this, I need you to know this isn’t a choice. I have to leave. There is no more work for us here. Dad, you might make it on your checks if I’m not around, plus the pull from Ray’s division. You would make it better if I were shipped off too, and what Donnie told me, that might just be happening. I won’t do it. I can’t kill, don’t want to fight. Hell with me, I’d stick my neck out just to avoid the struggle. But I know I can’t just bite it this second cause I want to. I know ma would look down on me, tell me that is the one line that’s too far for anyone to forgive. So I’m going to do the next best thing. I’m going to the Wilderness.’

After taking in the contents, Piper repeated the note aloud as though the words would fall apart and become as unreal as a phantom in the night once the light was cast upon it. Instead, as she let the sound of this deceit, this treachery, this act of self-destruction out into the world, she felt it become all the more real, herself crumbling inside. Fatimah was non-plussed, so unaware of the implications of the reality that was now set forth. Gregor’s father let out a growl, his eyes wetting with tears of denial, tears he would not allow to fall, “That little son of a bitch! He couldn’t do anything right. Had to fight him every inch to learn, to get over what we went through, to be a man, and still he worms away. Worse than his mother, worse than any of them.”

“We’ll show ourselves out,” Piper’s voice came as a light breeze, and just as fleeting, they were gone from the flat, leaving the man to greave in silence.

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