YA Science Fiction
Navigating the morning swarm is not the worst part of my day.
Shoulder to shoulder, my brother and I slog through masses of Middlers and Standards, their faces set in grim lines. They rush toward the trains, scrambling for space next to the already filled seats, shoving and pushing when necessary. 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 spots his friends sitting on the school steps, he drops my hand. Biting back a sigh, I drag Tor into an unoccupied alley and crouch to his level. In the dim light, he grows smaller, frailer, his eyes less steely. His ill-fitting Ozone may protect him from harmful radiation, but it does nothing to hide the jut of his collarbone. Our government provides Ozones in the interest of preventive medicine, not realizing how weak the far-off threat of cancer is compared to finding enough food and water to sustain my family for the week.
Eighteen years old, I am just another mouth to feed in a world where a thousand other people are competing for the same job. It is impossible to imagine what my life will look like five years from now, in this world of restrained chaos. I can fend for myself, but my brother's youth makes him vulnerable.
He watches me as I fiddle with the edges of his sleeves, a habit I can't seem to control. I wish I could tell him how much these moments with him mean, how they carry me through my errands. The whistling of distant trains fades to the background in the bubble of silence and stillness and peace created by the two of us. He clears his throat, yet his voice squeaks when he says, "Take me with you, Zanny. Please."
Yearning plasters his face. But he already knows my answer. Too young, too inexperienced, too small. After my lengthy sigh, his shoulders droop. He starts to turn, but I can't leave it like this, so I wrap him in my arms and hold tight. My little anchor. Without him, I am lost; because of him, I am lost. My family’s needs will always trump my own, but as I finger the edges of his spine, the wanting lessens. I believe in my actions, believe that some things are worth the cost.
Tor remains downcast until I tickle laughter out of him. He grins as if reminding me to relax, as if foretelling my success. The warning bell blares, but before I can muss his floppy hair as goodbye, he joins his friends. Something lodges in my throat as other kids charge the school, swallowing my brother in a black blur of Standard Ozones. They look like toys on a conveyor belt, churned out of a scholastic factory, some assembly required. Solar panels on the drab factory concrete reflect the dark shuffle of bodies. Our blurred figures distort in the glassy surface as the children march into the building and I head toward my errand. To the food depot of choice. Storming clouds shadow the roads, but I refuse to lose sight of my path.
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. Somehow he knows. My hands drop to my sides, stinging, useless. A tremor threatens, but I hold myself steady under his judgment.
“You…” His voice echoes 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 awakens another part of me. The part not reserved for 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. Nobody can stop me.
After seven flights of stairs, I pause to take a deep breath and lift my gaze. 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 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. Wild hair, slouched shoulders, the hems of my Ozone caked with mud--it's almost too easy to notice me. Sucking in a breath, I stalk toward the exit and disregard grunts as I shove through the spectators. The cache of food rubs against my belly, chanting not enough, not nearly enough, and I have no answer. Among the stores bursting with pastries and designer meal Pills, there is nothing for me. Nothing I can afford anyways.
Leaving the food depot, I make a sharp left and blend into the crowd with 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. Before the world swelled past capacity, everything--meals, clothes, homes--had cost less. Now the rich rule and my family pays the price 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 weighs my pockets down, the burden of a hope too silly to be consequential. If only…
The moment I spot them at the Forum, my mind blanks, concern overriding the usual worries.