Freedom Of A Sort
by Lucas Ahlsen
Hardy found his wife already awake, raking a fingernail over the cracks in their one coffee mug. She hadn’t left anything in the French press for him. He didn’t bother to ask what troubled her, not while she watched her beloved sports program, which only reported that the state had canceled all future sports functions in order to conserve electricity.
Moving to the sink with the French press, he cleaned it out and set another pot of water on the stove. He switched on the clock radio over the sink and left it on NPR. Classical music filled the silence between them.
He stood next to her since she’d taken the one seat in the kitchen. Wanting to comfort her, he settled a hand on her shoulder.
“It happened again,” he said.
“Of course it happened again,” she roared. “I was cozy until you got night sweats and decided I was trying to murder you.” Her head turned sideways, fury written in the wrinkles. “I’ve been up since 5 because of you.”
She jerked her shoulder away from him. He looked down at his long-johns, over the hump of his belly, down to his hairy toes. He glanced at the clock and saw it was 10 AM, so he hurried into his clothes, thermal underwear and all.
“I can’t help it,” he said. “A dream is a dream is a dream.”
“Life is hard enough without you ruining my sleep.” She lit a cigarette and pressed her slippers against the baseboard heater. “You’re too old to be scared of dreams,” she said, back to him. “Maybe we can put aside some cash to get you a goddamn teddy bear.”
Hardy had to slow himself down to keep from yelling at his wife. He laced up his work boots with great precision and donned his windbreaker as though it were a silk bathrobe. The zipper snagged near his navel and chomped the red uniform polo.
“I have to hit work after the dentist,” he said. “Gotta keep up appearances for FEMA. The overtime should even us up on rent.”
She said nothing, just took her anger out on a cigarette.
He descended the sagging apartment steps and had barely stepped into the street when he heard his wife’s banshee cry again: “That’s the last time you throttle on my neck, you son of a bitch!” she hollered. “And don’t leave the oven on when you leave.”
He flinched, body slumping at the shoulders and neck. The wind sucked the front door shut and stole his body heat along with it.
Hardy lived on a dead end street called Maple Court, a slum in middle-class costuming. A halfway house stood on one side, a crack house on the other. Sudanese refugees ruled a townhouse conclave at the end, and once a day a FEMA vehicle blocked the road entrance and hauled off a few people.
The same thing happened that morning. Hardy witnessed cops in riot gear dredging out the crack house. They got the unemployed lawyer, the handicapped fatty, the alcoholic wife beater. It made Hardy sweat to imagine where they went, and if he and his wife would be next.
As Hardy passed the FEMA meat wagon, he kept his chin up. Walking head down signified weakness, and someone somewhere would report it.
Keep up appearances. Hardy had repeated that mantra many times to his wife, and even more often to himself. The wisdom in it was canned at best, and the lies created a sour taste in his mouth that refused to dissipate. Since the recession had turned into a full-blown famine, society became the driving excuse for the government to make horrible changes in policy. Modern civilization, and all the hand-holding kumbayas that came with it, was little more than an appearance, too.
He spotted movement on the balcony above, saw a woman leaning against the rail smoking a cigarette. She had height, dark hair, and sad, Eastern European features—that’s what his poor eyesight made out for him at least.
It chilled him, how calm she acted, how she watched the round-up like a member of a live studio audience. Hardy broke his stare and swallowed hard, wondering if the younger generation had truly surrendered their future.
Anka re-tied her bun, knocked loose and twisted during the struggle with the coyote. She flinched as the chain she had used to choke it fell loose from the canine’s scrawny neck, sending a clatter through the studio apartment.
She drew up the black ropes of hair in haste, thinking that she ought to borrow her friend’s machete and chop it off. The last thing she needed was a feral human grabbing it and swinging her around by it.
She bundled up the chain and entered the kitchen, keeping her pry bar raised. The winter had killed off the bugs, despite the cobwebs everywhere. An empty coffee mug and French press sat on the one table. An overturned slipper clung to a chair leg by its toe, telling her the owner was dragged off in a hurry.
Anka wrinkled her nose at the sight—the guilt over her last profession still loomed fresh in her mind, even after society’s collapse. She rifled through the cupboards, found one can of baked beans and two cans of kidney beans, some Vienna sausages, and a package of lentils. She laughed at the can of forced meat.
“I know someone who’s been looking for you,” she whispered.
A stir in the other room startled her. She stuffed the food items in her backpack and readied the pry bar. Creeping around the corner, she watched an emaciated Feral take a rusted utility knife and field dress the dead coyote. The window onto the street was open, with a fire escape beyond.
She rushed the monstrosity who was gutting her kill. Her strike glanced off his head and her victim howled on the floor. Anka never grew accustomed to the sound, even after dozens of encounters. Beneath the beard and animal skins there was a human who had grown up in the city the same as her, who had gone to public schools and maybe gotten a degree, battled the recession and the famine, and then watched hell on earth blossom in the streets years ago.
She wrapped the chain around the Feral’s neck to silence him. With eyes closed she hummed a lullaby, more for herself than anyone else. At the end, she opened an eye to see if his tongue still writhed between his stained teeth. The laughing yips of a coyote pack echoed in the streets. Anka cussed under her breath.
She often felt grateful that her genes granted her a tall, strong body. That way she could lift heavy things, such as corpses, and push them over fire escape railings. The sound of bones crunching on asphalt, though—that made her spine twitch.
With the bait set, she rattled her chain to attract the coyote pack’s attention. A half-dozen surged into Maple Court, all gnashing teeth and frosted drool. Now she only needed to wait for them to have their fill.
She crouched in the apartment corner facing the doorway, clutching her grandfather’s single action shotgun. The duct tape grip stuck to her fingerless gloves. Removing a horse blanket from her pack, she wrapped up and jammed her eyes shut, singing a song to herself.
Hardy became vaguely aware of bad office Muzak.
“I’m usually flattered if someone dozes off while I work, but I have to ask you to wake up,” the dentist said. Latex tapped against Hardy’s nose. His eyes opened to a pair of white LEDs beaming into his retinas.
“You were singing in your sleep,” the dentist explained. “You need to quit it and keep awake. I can’t clean your teeth with you thrashing about.” She pulled back and switched the patient chair to its upright position.
“Sorry. I haven’t been resting well lately,” Hardy said.
“Bad dreams. Quite a few of them actually.” Hardy laughed and twiddled his thumbs.
“We’ll restart once you’ve got your marbles in order,” she said.
She lowered her face mask and rolled her chair back. Her face was well-tanned, with faint wrinkles around her eyes. She might have been forty, but the warmth in her expression suggested she harbored an old soul that had kept its youth. It was the kind of face that inspired trust. Right now, with the morning he had had with his wife, he needed someone to confide in, if only to relieve the burden of his dark visions for a moment.
But an aura of foreboding resided in the building. When his newspaper had gone under, he had had to switch to this new place, where most of the dental hygienists behaved like shady auto mechanics. The drop ceiling hadn’t been updated since the ’90s, and the equipment had yellowed from years in a sunny office.
The fact that he had to work overtime to balance his bills within a margin of dimes and nickels added to his stress as well. Hardy picked at a piece of foam trying to escape the arm cushion.
The dentist returned and nudged him with a clipboard. “Quit it. That thing is enough of a wreck,” she said.
The clipboard made him tense up. Hardy feared what she could write down more than what she might do to his teeth. He didn’t want FEMA knocking on his apartment door because she had made claims about his sanity.
She saw his fright, and offered a warm smile. “You look like you have something to say.”
“My dreams scare me,” Hardy stammered. “I’m a woman fighting for survival. Doing brutal things to monsters. But I think they’re still human. And animals too.”
“I never die, or turn into a monster myself. I’m just always fighting. Sometimes in my sleep, too.” He looked at his hands. “My wife wakes me up if I do anything violent.”
A silence passed between them. Hardy felt like an emotional philanderer, opening his psyche to a stranger. But along with his guilt came a relief that someone had finally listened.
She snapped her fingers. “You said once that you bag groceries?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You’re getting used to seeing the worst of us. People are on the verge of panic because of the famine. They can’t see a tomorrow. Maybe you can’t either, so close to the poverty line.” She switched the patient chair back again. The motor hum vibrated the tools on her tray. “You’re just scared of losing your identity, becoming one of them.”
He closed his eyes, savoring the moment’s relief. The ringing in his ears kept him from detecting the dentist’s pen scribbling on the clipboard.
She asked him to open his mouth. When she reached in with a mouth mirror and dental pick, a siren blared outside and startled them both. She wheeled to the window and parted the blinds. Blue strobes flashed across her eyes.
“How did you get so good at dream interpretation?” Hardy asked.
“When I was in school, I used to read tarot cards for money,” she replied. “It paid for my groceries.”
“And how long have you been working here?”
“Long enough,” she said with a quiet smile. “It’s a good gig, really. Government officials will always need good teeth.”
Hardy dropped his head back against the chair cushion while a FEMA squad breached the neighboring building.
It took an hour for the coyotes to finish, then another for a separate pack to eat the leftovers. She awoke with a start, alarmed that her exhaustion got the best of her. Anka hated to scavenge dead end housing, but she and the African needed supplies. She peeped out on the balcony and saw no movement, then proceeded downstairs.
She kept her gun raised. There’d be one chance to fire her shell, and after that her pry bar would have to suffice. As she opened the front door, she had to repress a tickling cough.
What she saw, the gore and entrails and shreds of chewed muscle, made her cringe. That would have been her fate, if she hadn’t struck first. She shook it off, and escaped the dead end, running over a fallen street sign that read Maple Court.
The winter sun faded fast. She balanced speed with discretion, kept to shadows and avoided thoroughfares. Around dusk the Ferals would return to their habitats, hauling back everything they could eat or burn.
“Two lefts, three rights and—” she said, “or was it two and three. Damn it.”
Her nap had muddled her sense of direction. The street had brick houses adorned with vines and she couldn’t see the ocean. She spotted a house with a roof observatory and snuck through the yard.
The back door was ajar and she crept through it. Dust layered the carpets and fixtures. A biting sea breeze flushed all heat out of the house, a sign to Anka that no one had bothered to convert that home into a hovel quite yet. She moved fast, rifling through the cupboards and finding moldy bread and an open box of pasta.
Ascending two flights of steps, she located an attic stairwell. By its musty odor, she assumed it hadn’t seen traffic in a while, though another scent pervaded the air—Anka ignored it, judging that it was some kind of mold that might kill her somewhere down the line but not today. A crack of sunlight directed her up a ladder into the observatory. It could fit four adults, and possessed a superior view of the city’s waterfront.
The horizon cast a blanket of orange over the naked trees. Squinting, she located herself on the wrong side of the city. The building she sought wasn’t visible from her vantage point, but the streets leading to it were—all broken buildings and trash-laden sidewalks, a patchwork of human detritus. Ferals milled through them, some in families and others as armed hermits. She crouched to keep out of sight.
Anka noticed a compass painted on the floor beneath her. The observatory roof above depicted a starry night, with a crystalline Polaris in the north. What alarmed her, though, was that the spot was well-maintained and clean, which usually meant one thing: The house had inhabitants, and they had likely heard her enter it.
A door slammed below and jolted Anka into attention. She fished out her shotgun and switched on the flashlight taped to the stock. As she descended to the attic, she tried to step without making the floorboards creak. Most of the planks were sound, save a rotten patch where the roof had a hole in it.
A man in coyote skins entered, wild-eyed and brandishing a knife. He softened at Anka’s flashlight beaming into his face. With hands held up, he began to speak.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” he said. He squinted at her jacket, reading the letters on the lapel. “You from FEMA?”
“Stay back,” Anka ordered.
With the man’s face illuminated, she recognized what dwelled in his eyes: The cold, blank fear from days when riot cops and tanks ruled the streets, famine and overpopulation buzzed through radio speakers, and car bombs went off next door. She had first seen it in a grocery store clerk, before all this hell started: A ghost of yesterday lurking behind a flashlight’s halo.
She took advantage of it. “Keep your hands up and drop all your weapons,” she demanded. “We’ll take you to the nearest safe zone.”
He stepped forward and she backpedaled into the corner. The floor creaked beneath her and started to give a little under her boot heels. She saw the rot in his teeth, the blood around his mouth. Anka hated this part, and hated even more the lack of remorse which would follow.
The Feral tensed up, preparing to pounce. “You ain’t a cop.”
He lunged forward and Anka’s shotgun spewed its buckshot thunder. Their combined weight broke the planks beneath them. They tumbled through, with Anka smacking her forehead on the way down. Gun-smoke and bloodshed filled her sense of smell as her eyes rolled back in her head.
After his appointment, Hardy felt his body chugging along on autopilot. Every motion required extra effort and came across as sluggish. His nights of poor sleep had sapped him. He wondered if the energy was spent somewhere else.
People came through the grocery store with the grimace of need written on their faces. They were thankless, too tired of hardship to express more than mutual despair to their fellow humans.
Blip, blip, blip, blip. The noise ticked away the moments as he tried to occupy his nervous mind. 6 PM, two hours to go. The rush hour surge paid up and went home to cook and cower in their homes. He reminisced about how it felt to earn a raise, to have a bank account and life savings—or any savings, or dreams of a bright future.
Management sent his bagger home early. The winter sun had set and the parking lot lights stayed off to conserve electricity. 22 checkout lanes faced black walls of plate glass, the emptiness outside reflecting the unmanned registers within. Hardy closed his eyes, preferring the blank screen of his eyelids to the quiet nightmare digesting him.
A mango rolled down his conveyor, landing sticker down as it passed over the scanner. Blip.
Hardy saw the woman from his dreams, the neighbor herself, plunk down a few cans of beans and a jug of orange juice. Vodka and a haddock fillet came next.
A sense of dread clogged Hardy’s mouth. He couldn’t muster the customary greeting. His eyes trailed up the black braid that ran from the customer’s waist to her head. When she reached for her pocket book he spotted a FEMA logo on her jacket.
He rang her up. “Cash or stamps?” he asked.
“Cash.” She thumbed through a handful of 10 and 5 dollar bills.
The Vodka ran over the scanner and an alarm beeped on Hardy’s monitor. “May I see your ID please,” he said.
“Really?” she asked. She had already put a cigarette in her mouth. “I don’t see why that’s necessary.”
An instinct from Hardy’s newspaper days stirred in him, urging him to speak out despite the consequences. He looked her straight in the eye, his own gaze wild with the indignation that comes from hitting the limits of patience.
“You may be old enough to carry a gun, or work for the government, or do whatever it is you do, but that doesn’t make you old enough to drink. . . ” he declared, glancing at the bottle, “cheap ass vodka.”
She produced her card. Her name was Anka, with a last name he couldn’t pronounce, and she was 23 years of age. Hardy deposited her cash in the empty register tray and bagged her items.
As he did so, she took a cell phone out of her pocket and snapped a photo of Hardy’s face. He glanced at her between movements, wary for what her next move would be.
She waved a finger across the touch screen. “Having bad dreams, Hardy?”
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“Says here you’ve experienced bad dreams lately. Violent ones, even.” She clicked her tongue. ” And you’ve got a pretty bad case of TMJ wearing down your molars. That must really wear down on a person.”
Hardy’s neck turned to gooseflesh. He felt stripped of dignity, naked before this emissary of fear and control.
Before the famines, planes flew over the building as they took off from the jetport. Inside the store they sounded like the sky itself yawned for near on a minute. That night, with the pitch dark outside and the hostility inside and the dread corroding the spirit of humanity, the noise was a black hole sucking them both in.
For a moment they looked into the parking lot together in search of the plane. There were no running lights, no shadow they could follow—just the sound and their reflections.
Anka seized her groceries and started walking, leaving her receipt behind. “See you in Maple Court,” she said.
Hardy clenched his fists so tight the knuckles popped. She left without looking back.
Dawn flashed into Anka’s eyes and the thunder inside her head reset her synapses. She found herself on a twin bed with moldy sheets, pieces of wood strewn across her body. Above her she could see into the attic, and beyond that a few stars peeked at her through the hole in the roof. A red stain had soaked the ceiling and the Feral’s corpse rested a few feet away.
Drawing herself together, she snatched her shotgun and left the house and its memories behind her, as much as she could forget all the others.
With the morning so cold, the Ferals wouldn’t scavenge until the frost broke. She hustled through the streets with limited vigor, keeping as focused as her pain allowed.
Soon enough she reached the waterfront, where a parking garage stood in the shadow of an old bank. Anka clambered up three flights of stairs, eager to reach safety as the dead Feral’s expression ran circuits through her mind.
She careened past abandoned cars and collapsed shanties. On the far side of the floor she unlocked a windowless room using the key from the necklace she wore. Knocking six times, she waited. Two strong slams responded.
“I found some Vienna sausage,” she said into the door.
“This is true?” a man asked inside.
“I saved them, just for you.”
She pushed the door open and found the African waiting for her with open arms and a broad smile, despite the machete in his right hand. She knew his name started with an H, and he always teased her about the fact that she couldn’t pronounce it, so in her eyes he became a superhero simply known as the African.
They embraced. “You are late,” he said. “No good.”
Although he had escaped the Sudanese genocide many years ago, his English remained mechanical and overly proper, as though every word needed strong annunciation. She found this comforting, and held onto him for an extra moment.
“You are hurt,” he said. He ran a calloused thumb over the goose egg on her forehead.
“The price of Vienna sausage,” she said.
“I do not like this. You must rest, and please let me go out the next time.”
Anka unloaded her shotgun and set it by her cot. “Is the power on today?”
“Yes it is good, very good.” He stepped in the corner and switched on the lamp and space heater. The glow illuminated their urban camp: An old storage room covered in carpets and blankets and non-perishable food items. A single outlet powered the tools of their survival. Anka imagined some stickler from the electric company maintaining the power lines, maybe for their own sake, or perhaps out of a perverse sense of duty.
“What is wrong?” the African asked. “Something more than the bump on your head.”
“The dreams came back,” she explained. “I’m that sad, sad man again, from the time before things went bad.”
He folded his arms and shook his bald head. Anka often wondered if he looked much different as a baby than he did as the middle aged juggernaut in front of her.
“You must not stay in the past. Nothing good is for you there.”
“I just can’t forget the man’s face.” She bowed her head and wrapped a sleeping bag over her shoulders. “He had so much fear in him.”
“This man is one you took for the government?”
Anka nodded. “He was having night terrors and attacked his wife in his sleep. It was only a matter of time before he snapped.”
“Of all the people I directed the trucks to, why has he stuck with me?”
The African had the can of sausages open already and mashed one up in his mouth. “You miss the power,” he said, mouth smacking.
“Everything simple for you back then. Not for him.”
Anka wanted to argue this, to find a way to refute his reasoning. She couldn’t.
“What do you worry about now?” he asked. “Rent? House? Bills?” He cackled. “He did. You did not. We have real worries now. Those scare you.”
“How can you laugh? There’s nothing funny about it.”
“I keep my mind here, girl,” he said, poking an index finger into his temple. “Never surrender. Survive.”
Anka leaned her head back against the wall. “So you think I’m scared of this—freedom?”
“No. You are scared of America. Both of you.”
A body slammed against their door, and a voice outside called for help. Anka reloaded her shotgun while her comrade retrieved a riot shield and his machete. They turned out the lamp and Anka switched on her flashlight.
“Should we?” she whispered. Her hands shook.
The cry for help came again.
“Yes,” the African said, “but they may not have my sausages.”
Anka swallowed, told fear to come back later. She steadied her hands as the African swung open the door.