Monday, February 6, 2012
Survival is the substance of Pangaea. No outdated code of ethics or modern law holds more importance. My family abides by this rule with unparalleled determination, and for this reason, my mother wakes me an hour before school starts.
“Zan,” she whispers, careful not to disturb my brother and sister. We wait, but their breathing remains deep at my side. She continues, “Today’s your shift. Get ready.”
I stretch my limbs slowly to avoid jostling Tor and Reiya then slide out from beneath our shared blanket. Mom smiles and hands me a small bucket of water, and I take care not to spill the precious liquid she spent hours gathering. By the time I finish my ablutions, Tor is running around her knees with his usual energy.
“Hey, little T.” I muss his floppy hair and peck my mother on her cheek. The circles beneath her eyes seem less sunken and her face more full. Good, good. Crouching to Tor’s level, I grab his hand. “What’re you doing up so early?”
“Can’t sleep without Zanny,” he says, swinging our hands back and forth. His collarbone juts with each movement, highlighting the purpose of my morning run. I try to imagine what he will look like in five years, stubble peppering his jaw, an Adam’s apple bulging at his neck, but our future smudges at its edges. I can’t even get a job, not when there are thousands vying for the same opportunity. Knowing the future; having one is the utmost luxury.
My throat tightens with an unspoken need. I swallow hard and strive for lightness. “So it’s not because you want green apples?” I tease and poke his belly.
He giggles and throws his arms around me. “You’re the best, Zanny.”
“Zan.” Mom pauses her knitting, callused fingers wrapped around the needles that create ingenious art. Not for the first time, I wish she could have better quality materials instead of the scraps we manage to muster. “You should get going.”
I nod and kiss Tor’s forehead. Squealing, he rubs his forehead with mock disgust and grins mischievously like only nine years old can. Reiya remains asleep, her long legs stretched out beneath the blanket, bony toes exposed to the cold air. I cover them with the blanket and promise to get fava beans for my mother. The least I can do for her.
Despite the isolation reserved for our neighborhood, walking from the makeshift shack and into Tyme takes less than ten minutes. The city envelops me, its massive buildings squaring each corner in a pattern as familiar as my own skin. It reminds me of the boxed houses I read about—rows upon rows of that same shape with small yards and some legroom, houses for families who could afford suburbia. But that was before the Recall, before space became an issue. How do those Middler families feel when they see these buildings and know their eviction allowed for dozens of apartments to be built in their stead? They may have less room, but at least they can afford food. This thought furrows into me while I hasten to the food depot where I plan to take our due.
Once I enter the market, everybody stares at me. I give a friendly wave to the store owner and smile. His frown deepens into a grimace, but after a few minutes, he turns to the Middler at the counter and they resume their conversation. His action thaws everyone else; they pay no further attention to the scruffy girl strolling through the aisles. In their minds, Standards like me cannot afford the price of fresh food. They think that I am wasting my time, that I have come to drool over what I cannot have, but they are wrong and I will be long gone before they realize it. Silently thanking my mother, I rub the hidden pockets she sewed into my Ozone.
At the produce section, I look around. I weigh the apples in my hands and when no one is watching, stash them in my pockets. I move to the vegetables and on my tip toes, search for the ripest fava beans. While searching, I knock over the assembly and apologize to no one in particular. The shoppers lift their noses and turn their backs while I promise to return the beans to the stand. When I straighten, only half have made it back to the display.
The store owner’s gaze snaps onto mine. He knows. My hands drop to my sides, stinging from his judgment.
“You…” He says, his voice echoing in the sudden silence of the store. Everyone watches us now. So many eyes fixed on me, the person who does not belong. “Come here. Let me see what’s in your hands.”
I do not obey. Before he can alert the security, I bolt from the market, shouts and mingled oaths trailing after me. I am like wind, an unstoppable force flying down the stairs and darting through the masses.
Moments like this, I know that I take the risk for more than my family. The feeling of my hair flying through the back zippers of the Ozone lights my nerves on fire. Hot blood pumps through my veins, pulsing with adrenaline, and I am alive, so alive. Nothing can stop me.
After seven flights of stairs, I pause to take a deep breath and raise my eyes. My pursuers glare down at me, unable to squeeze through the cracks between the throng of bodies separating us. Floor after floor of food rises above me and I am glad that the nearby ration depots are conglomerated in one towering building. If they had separate spaces on the street, the owners might grow to recognize me, even through the warped plastic facemask of my Ozone. Then, none of them would allow entrance to the thief. As it is, I must avoid the thirteenth and eighteenth floors, but thankfully some targets remain. Otherwise, I am not sure what my family and I would do.
Out in the open, too many eyes watch me, the Standard who does not fit among the granite columns and carpeted floors. Lagging is not acceptable. Sucking in my breath, I continue my exit, smiling at how the cache of food rubs against my belly.
Leaving the food depot, I make a sharp left and blend into the crowd, grateful that the Middlers provide me cover. Keeping my head down, I stride past the flood of personalized Ozones and navigate the sea of bodies. Inevitably someone bumps into me and I stumble, almost falling into the street and tripping over the train tracks. I gather myself and avoid the glaring lights of the train. It whistles and prepares to depart, its cars unsurprisingly packed.
Overcrowding: the price of modern medicine and scientific advancement. A price only those with money can pay but something of which we all are aware. A price my family paid and continues to pay in sweat.
One day we will not have enough and this cycle will consume my life before I get the chance to live it. The stolen food seems heavy in my pockets, the burden of a hope too silly to be consequential.
The sky darkens, as if reflecting my mood with its threatening storm clouds. If only it would rain enough to wash away my thoughts. On rainy days, Reiya says that my hair is like tumbleweed doused in alcohol, ready to catch fire despite the humidity.
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