Monday, February 13, 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 No outdated code of ethics or modern law holds more importance.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, but our success robs time from the others.
Shoulder to shoulder, my brother and I slog through masses of Middlers and Standards, their faces set in grim lines. A swarm of multicolored Ozones, they head towards the trains before the seats fill. We try to squeeze between bodies, but it is like walking through sludge. The rank odor of sweat clings to the air, stealing my breath before it comes. Tor falls behind and I grab him by his backpack, hauling him to my side. He looks at me ruefully before accepting my outstretched hand. Twisting through the crowd, we never break our bond.
We pass through blocks of towering buildings until we reach the looming gray of Tor’s school. The second he sees his friends sitting on the school steps, he drops my hand. Biting back a sigh, I drag Tor into a less populated alley and crouch to his level. In the dim morning light, he grows smaller, frailer, his eyes less steely. The ill-fitting Ozone does nothing to hide the jut of his collarbone. I try to imagine what he will look like in five years, but our future smudges at its edges. I can’t 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 you want green apples today?” I tease, poking his belly.
He giggles then throws his arms around me. “You’re the best, Zanny. Reiya’s not half as fun as you.”
I think of our sister and how she chose beauty sleep over our company. “That’s because she’s more concerned with her looks.”
Tor nods, solemn as the gates at our side. “I bet she wouldn’t remember Mommy’s request either.”
“Ah, the fava beans. Thanks for the reminder, little T.” I kiss his forehead in jest. Squealing, he rubs it with mock disgust and grins mischievously as only nine years old can. Like an anchor, his expression reels me home while holding me prisoner to a lifetime of unfulfilled dreams. My family’s requests will always trump my own.
The warning bell blares, a welcome interruption to the pang branding my stomach. “You need to go,” I say.
His grin vanishes, but before I can muss his floppy hair as goodbye, he joins his friends. Kids charge the school, swallowing my brother in a black blur of Standard Ozones. A line of small forms ascending the steps, they almost resemble products chugged from some sort of educational factory. Glass inlaid with solar panels covers these factories, reflecting the incongruous glob made by our shadows across the city.
As their childish figures distort in the glass, so does mine when I venture in the direction opposite my school. To the food depot of choice. Towards my errand, the roads darkened by storming clouds, yet I don’t lose sight of my path.
Time to take my family’s 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.
“You…” He says, his voice echoing in the sudden silence of the store. Everyone fixes their eyes on me, the person who does not belong. The person who steals another’s livelihood for her own. I used to be one of you, but the words lodge in my throat, a broken bridge of time dividing our classes. “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.
Darting down the stairs and through the masses, 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. And no thief would survive pursuit from a body hunter.
Out in the open, too many eyes find me, the Standard who does not fit with the granite columns and carpeted floors. Sucking in my breath, I continue my exit. The cache of food rubs against my belly, chanting not enough, not nearly enough, and I have no answer. Among these delicacies, there is nothing for me. Lagging is not acceptable.
Leaving the food depot, I make a sharp left and blend into the crowd, keeping my head down for cover. Inevitably someone bumps into me and I stumble, almost falling into the street and tripping over the train tracks.
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.
We will never 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. If only…
The moment I spot them at the Forum on my way home, my mind blanks, concern overriding the usual worries. Policemen patrol the area, scouring for members of the anonymous group that reminded us of our frailty. Posters depicting Tyme as a ticking time bomb plaster the city’s columns of engraved laws. White against reinforced steel, they hold their own, a presence the policemen cannot remove without causing a scene.
That doesn’t include my thievery though.
As if he heard my errant thought, a policeman looks at me, examines my bundled form. My mother once told me that the grace of my movements tends to attract attention.
Not the good kind.
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