I was puffing by the time I reached the top of the stairs. I consider myself to be in shape, but this man led quite a secluded life so high up at such an old age. And, to be frank, I needed his story. He was a big subject of gossip in the bazaar below, both for his warm blankets and his odd behavior. He had chased away many a friend, and my curiosity got the best of me. This is the first of many I will post here, I assume. It’s the stories of the many who had survived over the past twenty years of horror. Perhaps they weren’t the fittest, or the luckiest. But they survived. And, at least I thought, they deserved to have their stories here, for you to read.
– – – – –
The train roared to life, gathering energy in my ears and died suddenly when my eyes fluttered open.
In the early morning, the number 2 subway car was cool and dim, dyed with the light blues and pinks of the sun rising over the Bronx skyline. The battery had long since died, meaning that a newcomer would not be able to tell what subway line it was, or where it was going, or what time it was, but I remembered. I remembered sitting inside a stuffy 1 or 3 train, the air conditioning long since defunct, and feeling the lack of air like a compress on my lungs. I remembered seeing the lights flicker past, faster and faster until the train seemed to break the light barrier itself, until coming to rest inside the next station.
It was not like that now. Now, slender vines grew on the outside of the subway cars, quite literally rooting them to the spot. They fed on the glaring sun, the frequent deluge of rain that occurred at this time of year, and the dust and dirt that were borne on the wind. Now, the subway car remained silent, detached from its brothers who it had travelled with so faithfully over the years. Some still remained close, but not all.
I rose from the floor and rolled my blankets up, placing them gingerly on one of the benches. Quietly, I tapped the bench I slept next to three times with my middle finger. I didn’t bother waking Barbara up. She would be in a crabby mood today, as she always was.
What to make for breakfast today? There were still two fresh eggs left, from one of the chickens clucking happily in the next car. Perhaps some oats, that might do, watered down as there weren’t many left. But the harvest was soon, and we would stock up.
A breeze flew through the open windows of the car. I breathed in the smell of it. Decay and shit wafted up from the city, as per usual. Perhaps we were mad to stay here, I thought.
But we were outside of the island itself. No one stepped foot there. The likelihood of the ones remaining outside picking up the invisible, poisonous waves was over one-hundred-percent chance (especially with the water we drank), but we held onto the slim hope that it would not hurt us. We were New Yorkers, and we were home.
And we were invincible.
My dice were in my pocket where I left them last night. I pulled them out and counted them, all six, all different colors. Except for the two white ones, but one was different because one of the dots on the six was red. I rolled them and let them scatter on a mat. Odd for eggs, even for oats.
The blue die was three. The red die said four. Yellow said one, pink said two, and the first white said six. The last said one.
None of them said five. There were six of them, six dice, and none with the decency to have a complete set of numbers.
The two eggs were undergoing a vigorous scramble when Barbara stirred. I watched her rise from the car we cooked in. She was always quicker to wake than I was, always ready for the day, whether it be good or bad. She immediately rose out of her blankets and rolled them up before joining me in the second car of the row. It used to be the second car, technically, but now with the disappearance of the first subway car it was officially now the first. But it used to be second, and this is why I call it the second car.
“Glad you’re cooking those.” She said. “They were gonna go bad soon.” When they were done, I handed her a fork and we ate in silence. I rinsed the pan with water and emptied it out of a cracked window while Barbara took inventory. I felt the crag of the glass once, then back again, then twice more, just in case.
“We need to go down today.” She said. “Refill water. And we need to sell some of the mats you’ve made recently.”
“I haven’t rolled the dice on that yet today.” I said to her.
She didn’t reply, but I knew what she was thinking. Her lips pressed together. She started to gather the mats up as I rolled the dice, writing down the selections on a piece of paper.
Leaving the subway car – Odd, yes.
Gathering water at the pump – Even, also a yes. (Odds weren’t always yes, even wasn’t always no. Like life, I switched it around. It was important to take the guiding force that caused decision-making unawares at all times. Unless, of course, it expected minor trickery and used it like a chef would use a spice. I didn’t know if it expected me to do it, but I put it out of mind for the sake of my sanity.)
Hawking wares for money – Odd, no.
Hawking wares for goods – Odd, no.
“I will get water today.” I announced.
Barbara huffed. “Listen, Rich, I need your help carrying these mats to the bazaar. I can’t sell them all by myself and be on the lookout for thieves . And you can’t carry all that water up by yourself. We need to do it all together.”
“I can’t. The dice said – ”
“Who gives a shit. We need food today.”
“We have oats. We’ll be fine until tomorrow.”
Barbara folded her arms. “We only have enough oats to last us for a meal. We need actual food.”
By now, my palms were starting to sweat. We couldn’t break the dice. If we did that…I couldn’t. Bad things would happen, unspeakable. We would get robbed at knifepoint by a young man. Barbara might trip and fall down the stairs, careening into me and sending me down to the same fate. I didn’t want to think about it. And then, I imagined her, saw her, watched as they grabbed her by the arms and ripped off her dress. I saw them rape her and leave her in the gutter with her face bruised and smashed in. I imagined what would have happened had I rolled the dice wrong, and it would have been me like that.
And I looked up and saw Barbara, a different her, staring down at me still, waiting for my response.
“I’ll help you take the mats to market. But nothing more.” Even the thought of it sent a chill down my spine. My fingers tapped nervously against my thumb. We rolled up as many of the new mats as possible, all woven from old material. They were differently colored and the fabrics mismatched, but they were pretty, and most of all, warm. With the days growing shorter, the sun growing fainter, and with it, life growing harder, the mats we sold provided protection.
I followed Barbara with the mats tied to my back and toting two overly large jugs, devoid of water. We followed the train tracks to the nearest station, high up above all. I could see a bit of Manhattan past the glare off the water, the ruins majestic and horrible. The sun had already risen, and pigeons were still fluttering and flapping about, ignoring all that swam below them in the hustle and bustle of a God-forsaken world.
Down below was a different story. It was as if God had never forgotten us at all, and the Bronx pushed to remain how it was beforehand. Where there was a pump, there was human traffic. Around the local pump a small bazaar had set up shop. Stalls sold many different things – one sold chickens, eggs, even cheese, while another sold tomatoes, basil, strawberries, a rare apple or two. There were men who sold the basics– grains, like oats and wheat. There were people who made soap, and people who sold bandages and first aid, even after the many years since the collapse. One stand sold clothes – old, makeshift, or repurposed, you had to be careful combing through its racks to make sure you didn’t get the ones that were won by blood. It was not difficult to discern which ones those were.
I followed Barbara as she weaved through the hustle and bustle of the shop until we returned to our previous stall space. As we set up, people began to eye our mats. It was easy to tell those who were interested in trading for them, and those that were interested in simply taking them. When the mats were set up, Barbara settled down in front of the wares.
“So you’re sure you’re of no help?” She asked.
“The dice did not allow me to work the stand today. I must fetch water.”
“Please make more mats as well. Fall is soon and it was a hot summer. We will be having a cold winter.”
“You do not know that. The winters are still erratic. But I will make the mats if the dice let me.”
Barbara did not reply.
I looked up as I walked back to the station, my arms laden by jugs filled to the brim with rusty brown water. The day became blustery and hot, chasing the morning’s clouds away. People retreated into their dens to fend off the heat. I walked under the train tracks, hearing the shudders and screeches of trains that used to pass overhead. What times were those.
The tooth inside my mouth had begun to wiggle more violently, and I was sure it would come out soon. Perhaps I would ask Barbara to take it out for me. My mouth was sore all the time, aching and making it difficult to talk much.
By the time I reached the subway station I was breathing heavily. The water jugs took nearly half an hour to bring everything up. My torso hurt for the side stitches.
I boiled the water throughout the day. The dice told me that Barbara would come back a little after sunset, when the stands at the bazaar were busy getting rid of their last moldy fruits, or their youngest cheeses. That’s when others began to fill the streets – those that preferred the company of white powders and fires to keep them alive.
The sun gave its last efforts as it began to set, sending out pulses of exhausted heat so unlike its sharp rays from earlier. The last of the water was boiled and cooling in its jugs. I had not had much to eat today. I wondered if Barbara had got some.
I thought I heard someone on the tracks and went to the back window. “Barbara?” I called. No response.
The sun sank below the old, soot-stained buildings of the Bronx and of the nearby island. It grew dark as the LEDs flickered to life, their power charged from the day. “Barbara?” I called at the window. There was no response.
I busied myself with making dinner. Some oats in water, half of a tomato grown in the second car, roasted on a spit. The juices ran down my chin as I bit into it, still warm.
The heat that had taken the breath out of me not two hours before had now become bearable. With the absence of the sun, the cold had begun to sneak in again, crisp and friendly.
Barbara did not come. The outside was dark, and cool. Some small LEDs could be seen in the distance, like stars. I clutched my dice in my right hand, and rolled. Odd, yes, even, no.
Do I go find her? I asked.
The blue one said one, the red one said four, the yellow said four, the pink five, the white said two, and the second white showed its tiny red dot, poking out amongst the other five on that side. Even.
I stayed where I was, listening to the chickens in the other car, the people below as the chatter turned to singing, roaring, and fighting. The people below were dirty, and rowdy, but they were New Yorkers through and through. Just like me, high up above in the subway car. The dark descended around me, but when I clutched my dice I was safe. I tapped on the bench in the car, three times, with my middle finger. Perhaps we were made to stay here, I thought.
– – – – –
Until next time.
The Baleful Bard.