A stench hung over the city but as usual, the walkers filled the streets. Most walked alone, some in pairs. There were thousands of them and they walked in all directions, wherever there were avenues to accommodate them. The surface beneath their tired feet was spongy rather hard. Each step they took was a contribution. Each step was tracked carefully.
Ian Sharp walked grimly along the busiest avenue, feet red hot bricks of pain. It was early evening and that meant the government-issue shoes upon his feet were not his own. There were three people in all the world that knew this. One of those people was presently gagging and cursing beside him.
“It’s unbelievable. I keep thinking it can’t get any worse and it always does. What the hell do you suppose they’re burning these days?
It was Hank Buck, who coughed and swore more for dramatic emphasis than anything else.
Ian stared straight ahead at a landscape of gray buildings and smokestacks breathing foulness into the sky. There were too many smokestacks to count. Every building, whether tall or squat, was gray. Most were former office buildings or condominiums. They had been gutted and divided and then divided some more. Every spare corner had been converted into wee compartments to house the wretched inhabitants of the neighborhood as efficiently as possible.
“Could be cat,” Ian said, teeth gritted against the pain in his feet. “When’s the last time you saw a cat around here?”
Buck turned to look at him, still walking. He was a stocky man with a bald head. He wore a ragged plaid jacket, government issue blue, just like the one Ian wore to protect him from the chill.
“Cat! What the hell can you get from a cat? Not enough blubber on ’em. You could burn a million cats and they wouldn’t produce no energy.”
Nonetheless, Buck began looking around in all directions, scanning the sooty alleys, peering between groups of walkers on either side. There were no cats in sight.
Ian didn’t believe the refineries were burning cats, although it was not an entirely fanciful notion. Ten years ago, there were dogs in the neighborhood. Now there were none.
In a nation starved for resources, almost everything imaginable had been baked, boiled or burned in an attempt to tease energy out of it. But the only constant source was the walkers themselves. Each step produced a paltry tenth of a watt. But there were 250,000 of them in this neighborhood alone, and each walked a minimum of nine miles a day.
Or lost all rights to food, water and protection and risked being sent off to the camps where they would be forced to contribute to the energy appetite in others ways.
They walked. Ian tried to imagine a day when these avenues were paved streets buzzing with cars and buses and motorcycles. He was too young to remember it, but he had heard the stories. He found the idea of it, all the buzzing velocity and noise, more frightening than anything else.
They passed a couple holding hands. They were a young pair, perhaps 25, but each looked tired to the point of collapse. Everyone in the neighborhood worked 50 hours a week at a federal job. They squeezed in their nine miles before or after.
More miles, if you happened to be pulling double time.
“How are your feet?” Buck asked, voice dropping a few octaves.
Ian nodded. A-okay, he meant to imply. They both knew it was a lie.
They walked. They passed a federal store where groups of men and women stepped off the avenue to pick up their allotments of gritty water, slimy meat and perhaps a few bananas, if there were any for the taking. Like most buildings in the neighborhood, the store was a concrete square with a simple door and a few unadorned windows. Above the door was a billboard that read: STEP INTO YOUR FUTURE: HAVE YOU WALKED YOUR MILES TODAY? The message was set over the image of a couple and two children, seen from behind, stepping from an avenue and into a dirt yard before a tiny house.
“How’s Samantha?” Buck asked. He was blowing on his hands.
Ian winced. Hearing her name somehow intensified the throbbing in his feet. He thought of her at home in the cold, dreary apartment, walking on that stupid treadmill when she should be resting. He could see her face, that beautiful round face contorted with pain and stubbornness, utterly defying the sickness.
“Better,” he said. “Maybe better. Not well enough to be out here.”
Buck looked at him. Ian could feel it. He tried to concentrate on the stench, a nasty smell he associated with burning hair. What were they burning these days?
“You’re going to kill yourself,” Buck said in the flat tone of one who believes every word that leaves his mouth. “I don’t care how tough you are, cramming your feet into size sevens and hiking nine miles will either kill you or get you caught. Sooner or later, you’ll come across an uptight Uncle who asks for more than your name.”
“I’ll deal with it when it happens,” Ian said.
They were passing another federal store. It looked the same as the last one, although the billboard above the door was different. This one stated: JUST WALK AWAY: REMEMBER, DEALING WITH THE UNDERGROUND MEANS DEATH.
They both looked at it. They kept walking. Beside them, a fat man was bent over, wheezing and coughing. Ian could hear the phlegm rolling in the fat man’s throat. A pretty girl, perhaps a daughter, stood over him and slapped at his back.
“You ain’t fine,” Buck said when they were past them. “You think you’re going to walk yourself right out of the neighborhood, but you’ll be on stumps by the time you do it.”
Closer than you think, Ian thought.
But he said nothing. He just kept moving. In a few blocks, he would turn left onto Eighteenth and circle back toward home. He would part from Buck and the last of the day’s light would be gone. He liked walking in the dark. It meant he would be with her soon.
“You ought to do something,” Buck said. He had taken to holding his nose closed with one hand. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Ian said nothing. Distracting himself from the pain had proved ineffective. Now he tried to concentrate on it, doing battle with it in his mind. The toes of both feet were bent inside the undersized black shoes. They were ugly things, chunky and black with buckles instead of laces. They were built for durability instead of comfort. It was important to the people who designed them that they last a long time – that they produce more energy than was required to make them. It was said that each pair of the federally distributed shoes could handle 50,000 miles without wearing through. In a capitalist society, such a thing might fetch top dollar. But capitalist societies were the things of fantasy, something old people talked about when they were tired and blue.
The bones of his ankles throbbed. The heels felt as though they were actively burning. He tried to imagine each foot resting on a cool, comfortable pillow. In his mind, the pillow was velvety red. But the image did nothing for the twin agonies beneath his ankles.
“You should at least check it out,” Buck was going on. His voice sounded comical through pinched nostrils. “See what they can do for you. More people are turning to them these days, you know. They deal in everything down there. I heard about a guy who let them have one of his eyes in exchange for medicine for his daughter. Heard about another guy who traded in his infant son just to have someone walk his miles three days a week. They can make things happen. They can...”
“I’m not doing it, Buck. I don’t trust those people. I just want to get out of here. Me and Sam, I want us to get the hell out of the neighborhood.”
Buck let go of his nose.
“Neither one of you is going to get out if you drop dead. They’ll haul you off and suck what they can out of your corpse and then where will Samantha be? Huh? I don’t think you’re looking at the bigger... Crap. Uncle.”
His voice had dropped again. Ahead of them, several tall men in dark jumpsuits were pushing into the crowd. Each carried a long device that looked like simple walking sticks but with flat panels at either end. They stopped walkers at random, addressing them in bored voices.
“Step over here, please. Lift your right shoe...”
Ian clenched his teeth tighter and kept walking. He saw one of the jumpsuits coming at him from his left. He pretended not to see him. He kept walking.
A hand fell on his shoulder.
“Step over here, please.”
Ian looked at the Uncle, irritated. It was an affectation he had practiced. He stopped walking and stepped toward the man with the stick.
“Lift your right shoe for me, please.”
Ian lifted his foot, the pain in the other one doubling at once. The man in the jumpsuit swiped the lower end of the stick beneath the sole of his shoe. There was a soft click, like the sound of a pen plunger being depressed. Around them was a fast flurry of similar clicks as the jumpsuited men checked the mileage of the walkers. It sounded like hail or like a swarm of crickets. Ludicrous ideas, both of them. It never hailed anymore and the last of the crickets had disappeared right after the birds.
Ian waited as the stern-faced man examined the panel beneath his hand.
Ian managed a yawn.
A pause. A nod.
“You have three miles left today. Please keep walking.”
And then the Uncle, one of dozens who would be among them on any given day, was on to the next tired walker and then the one after that.
It was dark when he got home. The smell of the refineries was not so strong here. They lived in a section of the neighborhood called The Ruins. It was a cluster of concrete buildings, each identical to the one next to it, that housed five thousand people. The cluster sat close to a river. The river itself was a frothy, gray snake that oozed through the neighborhood and it had its own stink. But that stink was softer and more predictable. They hardly noticed it anymore.
He walked through a doorway which was illuminated faintly by a dim, flickering bulb. He climbed four flights of concrete stairs which were similarly lighted. The stairways smelled of potatoes, burned meat and piss.
On the fourth floor he walked down a concrete hallway. The agony in his feet had spread to his shins. His thighs hummed with the voltage of pain. His buttocks ached.
He fetched a key from a pocket and let himself inside. The apartment was gloomy, a one room flat lit by a bare bulb. In the center of the room, Samantha rose from the sofa and tried to rush to him.
“Baby!” she said.
Ian hurried to meet her, catching her in his arms halfway into the room. He could feel her body trembling. As much as his legs pained him now, he knew that hers felt that way every hour of every day. It sickened him to know it.
“Sit down,” he said, kissing her round face. “Let’s both sit down.”
He helped her to the sagging couch with its cover that had been patched and re-sewn too many times to remember. They both collapsed into it.
“Let me help you with the shoes,” she said, bending to his feet. He stopped her.
“Sam, it’s fine. Let me get them. They hardly hurt at all today.”
“You liar.” She smiled up at him. He could see that she had been crying. She was tiny and blonde and her eyes were big and brown.
He got his shoes off and kicked them across the room. For a moment, he couldn’t speak. The relief was like water on a fire. He thought he could hear his feet hissing as blood returned to them. The sensation was of a thousand pin pricks on the soles. Under different circumstances, it might have been a form of pain in itself. Tonight, it was glorious.
“Let me rub them for you,” Samantha said, squirming to get off the couch again. He pulled her back. There were areas of flesh on his feet that had been rubbed to raw, gleaming pink. There were blisters that had erupted and healed, erupted and healed in a cycle that was almost geologic. There were black patches, green patches and bright red ones. There were bruises and scrapes too numerous to count. If he had his way, she would never see his mangled feet up close should they live to be a hundred.
“The day I let you rub my feet will be the day I volunteer for the federal army,” he said. “Forget about them.”
She crossed her arms, pouting. Behind her, next to a gray wall, he saw the hulking shadow of the treadmill. He hated the treadmill. One day, when they rose out of the neighborhood and onto the Plateau, he planned to throw the thing into the river on their way out.
Step into your future, he thought bitterly. Walk 40,000 miles and all of this can be yours! A tiny house with individual rooms, away from the stink and haze of the neighborhood! A toilet that flushes! All of this for simply walking yourself to death on your way to the front door!
He realized he was dozing and fought against it like a drowning man. In just over five hours, he would awake and walk into the smoke clogged neighborhood. He would walk a route between the stinking refineries and drab federal stores and navigate a course twelve blocks to the plant. The plant would suck away his afternoon and then there would be more walking to do. Too many of his hours were given to them when he wanted to give all of them to her.
They boiled potatoes and meat over a fire. Stove cooking was allowed only once a week in the neighborhood.
They ate at a table a few feet from the couch. A single candle burned between them and it looked somehow ridiculous in this shabby place, like a rose growing out of the mud. When he was finished eating, he leaned back in his chair and looked at his wife. She was looking back, chin resting in her hands.
“I want to go to the federal center again,” she said.
“No, listen to me. Please just listen to me, okay?”
He sighed. He wished there was coffee. Rationing. When a nation was in the grip of a dozen cold wars at once, there was always rationing.
Mostly, he wished they weren’t going to have this conversation.
“They need to see that I can’t use my legs. I’ve been exercising them every day and they just... don’t... work. Five minutes on them and they quit. I can’t walk, Ian. They need to give me an exemption.”
“But they won’t. You know they won’t. If you can wiggle your toes and bend your knees, you are expected to walk. I’ve seen people with busted ankles hobbling out there and they don’t get an exemption. It’s horrible and cruel, but that’s Uncle. Complain too much and you might draw suspicion. They could send you away to that... other place.”
“But it’s not fair!” she said, bringing her palms down onto the table. It made a sharp sound, like the yelp of a dog. “You walk so much and my half of it is wasted! If you could just walk for yourself, you’d get those miles you want so much. It will take forever this way.”
Closer than you think, he thought, and the very idea warmed him. A secret. A wonderful secret he would one day share with her. One day soon.
“I do want to escape. Because you deserve better than...” he gestured around the squalid room. “You deserve so much better than this damn place.”
He could feel his words turning hard, like water turning to ice. She smiled at him but it was a rueful smile.
“You’ll kill yourself walking both our miles just because you hate it here so much. But why, Ian? Why do you hate it so much? As long as we’re together, isn’t that enough? We have half of Sundays all to ourselves. We have the nights and we have the Beach.”
He laughed but it didn’t sound right. Too much irony. The Beach was where they’d met eight years prior. It was ironic, alright. It was a spot on the river where a bridge had collapsed decades ago. So much pollution and crap from the refineries piled up there, you could walk across the water to the other side. At night, it was almost a serene place. In daylight, it was an afterworld horror of sewage and animal parts; of thick liquids that oozed across the water like serpents.
“What we don’t have,” he said slowly, careful to keep the ice from his voice, “is any chance to go outside without choking in the stench. That stench is probably killing us, Sam. On the Plateau, you might feel better.”
“You think the Plateau is a magical place,” she said. “You’re obsessed with it. You think you have to carry me away even if your legs are turning to mush. Home is right here, right now, darling. For me, home is where you are. Home is wherever we’re together.”
Closer than you think, he thought again. But there was less joy this time. He could feel the old anger burning into his heart – anger toward a government that had squandered its resources, destroyed its environment and caused the world to regress into dark ages. There was a time when even the poorest people didn’t live like this; didn’t live like upright organisms whose only benefit was the energy they could produce. And yes, it angered him to the point of shaking. But mostly it was helplessness. He could feel it in the burning of his cheeks and the stinging of his eyes; a helpless rage with nowhere to go.
“They won’t give you an exemption, Sam. We’ve tried. I’ve got to keep walking and you’ve got to keep taking care of yourself. You can’t worry about me all the time. I’m fine.”
She looked at him over the flickering candle. For a moment, it seemed the old argument would rage on. But in time, she offered another smile. It was a wan smile but a real one. She knew the stubbornness that existed within her husband’s soul. She wouldn’t waste another minute of this precious time making him fretful.
“I love you,” she said.
Later, after she showed him just how much, he lay at the frail edge of consciousness and thought: Just walk away. Remember: Dealing with the black market means death. Step into your future. All of this could be yours!
And then he slept.
With the unvarying haze that slunk over the neighborhood, morning looked quite the same as early evening. It was gray with a dim sun trying to glow behind poisonous clouds. No birds sang because there were none left. There were only the sounds of machinery and the walkers themselves.
There was a fight on Ninth before the sun was all the way up. Ian picked up fragments of angry conversation as one man held down another on the avenue and beat him. Something about a botched trade: cola for cigarettes.
The neighborhood made savages out of men.
On Tenth, a woman was screaming after she was stopped by one of the Uncles. His gadget showed the woman had walked only a half mile this morning. She insisted she had walked at least five. When Ian moved past them, the woman was screaming louder.
He made it to Fourteenth Street and then turned right. The miles were moving quickly. He was refreshed and comfortable, his own shoes upon his feet. It felt like he was walking on pillows, perhaps the velvety red pillows he’d imagined a day before.
Eleven blocks in and bearing down on the plant where he would spend the afternoon, a big man in a ratty white T-shirt approached from behind.
“You want anything from down below,” the man said, “you meet me right here on this corner. Six a.m. any day at all, friend.”
The man never looked at Ian. He was enormous, with thick patches of black hair over the back of his neck and on every inch of his arms. Ian watched him go and wondered if the big man had said anything at all.
He stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets and kept walking. In the sky, blurry in the haze, a federal chopper moved over the roofs. It was an ugly thing, dull black, like a bug that lives in the mud. It was suspected they were on the prowl for signs of underground activity, but nobody knew for sure. There were rumors that federal scientists (the only kind of scientists there were) had been ordered to search for new sources of energy. What more they could possibly pluck from the ravaged neighborhood was a mystery.
Ian knew that people sometimes disappeared. There was never any explanation and very little demand for one. There was no press. There were few social circles because people were forever tired and there was no place to go. No restaurants, no bars, no bingo halls. Ian had never seen nor visited any of those types of places, but he knew of them. He had learned how people once lived and it deepened his resentment toward the forces which reduced them to this barbaric existence.
He reached the plant sooner than he expected. It was a tall, windowless building with one giant smokestack and four smaller ones. Exhausted drones were lined at the main doors waiting to go inside. They would spend their afternoon feeding giant machines, screwing metal parts together, building things they would never see in completion. They were worker bees who never so much as sniffed the honey.
Ian seethed. He kept walking, eager to get in two more miles, maybe three, before it was time to feed the machines. He wanted to walk out of anger for now and it pained him that each stomping step produced a portion of what they so greedily craved. To them, all walking was a contribution to the energy pool, a tenth of a watt at a time. To Ian, it was regretful that on his march out of this damned place, he had to contribute anything at all.
“They say it’s people. Can you believe that?”
Three weeks later on an afternoon walk. He was in Sam’s shoes again and the ache today was so intense it was surreal. It was late November but warm. Ian knew that snow used to fall on the neighborhood but he had never seen it himself. He had never seen it drop below 45 degrees.
“What are you talking about, Buck?”
His friend had caught up with him a mile and a half back. Lost in his realm of suffering, Ian had barely noticed.
“The smell. I hear it’s people. Dead people. And they ain’t burning them, either. Something about speeding up the decay process. That make any sense to you?”
Ian struggled to think through the pain. He could feel liquid inside both shoes. More blisters had burst. The liquid acted as a lubricant which should have eased the pain some. But it didn’t. It just created more blisters.
“BioGas,” he said, and his jaw ached because his teeth had been clamped so tight.
“Bio what now?”
His right ankle was an area of particular trouble today. He had been trying hard to shift the weight from his mangled toes, which naturally shifted the burden of his weight to the ankle. It felt like one wrong move would cause it to snap and he would fall to the avenue, shards of leg bone stabbing into the spongy surface.
“They were doing it with livestock for a while. Treating them with some kind of chemical so they would rot faster. The gas it releases can produce some form of energy. It stands to reason a rotting person would provide the same thing.”
Buck curled his nose. He seemed particularly agitated today.
“Well it stinks. And knowing it’s people like you and me makes it stink more.”
“You’re right. Maybe you go see your federal representative and complain. Tell him how you feel. Maybe they’ll send you off to the Plateau, or maybe all the way out to the Countryside so you don’t have to smell it.”
Buck was walking sideways, gaping. He stumbled into a slow-moving older man and the two snapped at each other a moment before pulling apart.
“Well, you’re in a mood,” Buck said petulantly. Then after a quarter mile, he began to feel guilt about his petulance. “Sam okay?”
They were passing a federal store. Ian made himself look away before the billboard could pull at his eyes like gravity.
“She’s great. Stays at home twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Except for the hour I carry her out into the toxic air. It’s very lovely. On special days, we make it all the way to the grand pile of shit where everybody dumps their pots. Very romantic. I don’t know why anybody would want to leave all this.”
They walked another half mile. The Uncles were moving through but didn’t stop them. There was a couple having an argument about a child’s behavior in federal school and there was another fist fight just up the avenue from that. Everybody seemed to be in foul spirits today.
“I’m sorry,” Buck said at last. “Wish there was something I could do.”
“There isn’t. But thanks.”
They walked and tried to ignore the stink. Ian thought maybe someday they’d look back on this as the Era of The Rotting Dead Man, the same way they thought of their days in federal school as the Era of Fish and the years after that as the Era of Baking Sewage. He wondered how many eras and how many stinks any man could pass through here without losing the last of his will.
“You given any more thought to it,” Buck asked him before it was time for them to part. “To, you know. Seeing someone?”
Ian grimaced. It wasn’t the ceaseless questions of his friend, it was the feeling of a toenail on his left foot sliding off. The little one, what his mother had told him went “wee wee wee” all the way home.
“Dealing with the underground means death,” he said, almost brightly. “Everybody knows that.”
He was limping badly by the time he got to The Ruins. His right shoe – Sam’s right shoe – was a small pond of blood and pus. The throbbing in his left toe was like a toothache gone south. He was almost delirious with it.
He let himself inside with the key and almost immediately dropped to the floor to remove the shoes. The sooner he got them off, the sooner he could hide the pain. But the strategy was needless. Under the gloomy bulb, he saw Sam lying in a heap next to the treadmill.
He ran to her, the unbuckled left shoe flying off his foot and squeaking across the linoleum floor. He bent to her and scooped her up in his arms. Her face was chalk white. She was sweating and her hair was dark with it.
“Honey. Can you hear me, honey?”
He tapped her warm face with the back of his hand. He blew on her and swept moist hair from her eyes. The eyes twitched beneath the lids. They fluttered a moment, almost opened, closed again.
“Samantha!” more alarm in his voice now. “Wake up, Sam!”
The eyes fluttered once more. This time he could see the brown of her irises. The eyes were cloudy as though he were looking at them through a mist.
She groaned again. She twisted in his arms.
“Oh, no. No, no. Ian...”
He bent closer to her.
“What is it, baby?”
“Ian, I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was so late. I must have... must have...”
“It’s okay,” he said. “That’s okay, baby.”
“... must have fallen off. It happens sometimes. Usually I wake right up again.”
“Shhhh. That’s okay, Sam. Let me get you to the couch.”
She moaned and tried to pull away from him.
“You walked all day. I can get up. Just leave me... let me...”
He picked her up and carried her to the couch, setting her gently on the dingy cushions. He brought her water in a glass, water that was brown and gritty. They tried not to drink much of it, but she needed some now. She gulped at it until the glass was almost empty.
“My legs won’t work,” she muttered. He got the feeling she wasn’t completely awake. “I try and try to make them strong again but they just... they don’t work, darling. I don’t want you to walk for me anymore.”
“Shhhh,” he said, because he couldn’t find the voice to say anything more. His throat was thick, as though it was clogged with the sludge that polluted the river they liked to call The Beach. It was clogged with anger and failure and futility. The pain in his feet, stuffed into undersized shoes and made to march, could not compare with the agony of emotion that rendered him speechless.
He got up and poured more water for her. He watched her drink half the glass and then hovered over her. She was feverish. He touched her forehead and it wasn’t just warm, it was hot, like a rock baking in the sun. He paced around the couch on feet that minutes ago screamed for mercy. He paced and fumed and tried not to weep...
5:40 a.m. The walkers were out, zombies in plaid coats provided by a government that did not want them dying of cold when they could be producing. Grumbling men and women walked the avenues and no matter their speed or their gait, nobody looked like they had a place to be. Ian walked his normal morning route. He turned left onto Fourteenth Street, walked a few blocks and then changed directions. He scanned the people around him, cutting his eyes left and then right. It was a strange feeling. He was not accustomed to looking at his fellow walkers, beyond the occasional glance.
He walked a few blocks back in the direction from which he'd come and then turned around once more. It made him uncomfortable to do so. Changing course too frequently would draw attention. He didn't need attention, even while wearing his own shoes. He walked and studied his fellow denizens of the neighborhood. A young man with fiery red hair was coming toward him and weeping openly. There was no immediate clue to the source of his distress.
A woman with a cast on her lower right leg was hobbling along with the help of a crutch. She moaned with each step. A tall man with a thin mustache walked with one hand stuffed deep in his pants and a look of glorious satisfaction on his face. Ian quickly looked away. It was amazing the things you saw if you started looking. He didn't care for it much.
He spotted the big man ahead of him just as he prepared to turn around for the last time. The man was wearing a coat today, but it was him. Ian was sure of it. The hair around his neck protruded over the collar. The size and shape of the man was unmistakable.
Ian quickened his pace, brushing past a man and woman leaning against each other. The woman grunted faintly as though he had roused her from sleep. Within a minute, he was shoulder to shoulder with the big man he sought.
"I don't know you, friend, " Ian said. "But I'm hoping you can help me. "
The big man kept walking, kept staring out at the bleak world ahead of him. His thumbs were hooked into the pockets of his pants.
"That might be possible, " he said. His voice was low and rolling, like boulders tumbling down a hill. "I help lots of people. "
Ian nodded. He felt something loosen within his chest. It was neither a good feeling nor a bad one. It was hard to say if it was relief or resign.
Read the thrilling conclusion to "The Neighborhood" and two dozen other stories. Pick up a copy of Box of Lies at www.marklaflamme.com