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Down on the Ground
Harold Dolan was dismissed with the other journalists for lunch hour. His apartment was two blocks away, so he chose to take his lunch there instead of in the munching sea of Union-worshippers. He filed down the hallway to the whirring lift, riding it into the commotion of the city, immediately asphyxiated by the thick air floating about in the gray sky. He pulled up the zipper on his Union windbreaker and shoved his pale hands into his pockets.
It was 2096 in New York, the prominent city of the Union, and there were people about to spare, there were always people about to spare. The Abortion and Anti-Pregnancy Seminars were receiving monthly increase in funding; the government had finally convinced the citizens that loyalty to their government was to put above reproduction, and the posters said it all just like that, as if reproduction was really as technical and unemotional as the word sounded. Besides, many of the children born were disfigured from the aftermath of World War III, the most brutal nuclear was in history. Radiation still hung about on bad days, and one couldn’t dare venture outdoors then, just hide in their vacuum packed apartments, like sardines. World War III had begun with the bombing of California, continued with the desolation of Iran, taken Illinois, and ended in the complete destruction of the Middle East, children and all. Oxford, Milan, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Shang Hai were now nothing more than rubble and skeletons, and yet the population had since skyrocketed. A vicious misery had spread over the Union decades ago, causing mass suicides and a rapid increase in homicides. To protect their precious laws, the government had begun an extensive prescription treatment for anyone trapped between the borders. A milder form of cocaine, Ritesin, a daily pill, became an enforced law. It kept citizens happy, energized, and sufficiently brainwashed. There were enforcers, too, at every company that screened each employee as he entered, testing them for the drug. Those that had failed to take the pill in the past twenty-four hours were thrown in jail for anywhere from one month to one year, no trial, no pay, only extensive therapy designed to right the individualistic mind. For extreme cases of rebellion, such as intended escape, months of psychological torture had to be endured, followed by a prescribed gram of pure cocaine daily. Eventually, the former troublemaker would get madly addicted, and would have no problem taking orders only for more, more, more. Dolan thought of his wife, pacing the linoleum tile in their apartment, a cigarette between her lips and her platinum hair in strings, emaciated limbs shaking and craving. It had been five years, Harold was now thirty-one, Maggie, twenty-six. Back then, they would’ve seemed ancient. Dolan pushed the thought of his past out of his heaving mind and tuned the key in his apartment door. Maggie was there: cross-legged on the floor, crouched over a tumbling stack of papers at the coffee table, eyes wide and flinging left and right.
She stood up when she saw him, smiling airily.
“I’m writing a paper for my Union Study and Appreciation course, would you like to read it?” she pronounced quickly.
“You’ve gone and snorted it all in one go.”
“Yes, yes,” she mumbled. “Feels better that way, hurts more later though. You had yours today?”
“Half this morning, half in a moment. One step closer to that degree, huh?”
“Mmm,” she nodded. “Professor says I can see a secretarial position in six months.”
“Good school, they wanted to wash it all out of me with Ivy League, you know?”
“You’re still you,” Harold said.
“No, I’m all this now,” she shook her head, holding up an empty baggy. “Empty as well. I was thinking about the day we got caught, it made me hate my paper more.”
“So you snorted the rest.”
“Precisely, love. Do you want to read it? I like the writing, I just let my intelligence slide and wrote whatever popped into my head that seemed to appeal to the laws.”
Maggie thrust the paper at his face, looking down to focus back at her textbook. Harold watched her, hair drooping in her eyes, then looked to the essay. She wrote like she thought: rambling and bumbling and bouncing about, her backwards little expressions muddled with every thought her mind had mustered. Like a ping pong ball now, her topics bouncing here and there as they fled through her rabid mind, curvy-turvy thoughts in succession, whisking through her head and scribbled onto lined paper. Her darting, dark eyes were alight with focus and purpose, fleeting emotions, all shaking hands and deep sniffles, shimmying like the excessive drug clogging her nose and veins.
He nodded and handed it back to her. “Very patriotic.”
She snatched it back without looking up, her eyes were mirroring saucers as she scanned the text book in front of her, then stopped suddenly and stared at him. “Do you remember what you said to me the day we got arrested?”
“Say it again.”
“You like to hear it.”
“Yes, now say it again.”
“ ‘It’s not in us to become what they are.’”
“Look at us, Harold. I’m not pretending anymore, I’m one of them.”
“You can’t be.”
“The drug’s pushed it right out of me. I’m all smiles and obedience, like they wanted. I can’t stop now, I’ll die.”
“You’ll get arrested too. No addiction can make you one of them.”
“Sometimes I feel it when I dose up. I feel it eating the rebellion right out of me.”
“Here,” he said, pulling her close to him. “It’s not you. You know who you are and you know what you’ve done.” He cupped her thin face. She pulled back, a bit surprised. They didn’t do that anymore, not like the other happy couples. He hadn’t been able to look at her ever since their arrest five years ago.
They had changed so much. He remembered the way they used to talk about the world, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, daring each other to do something about it. They would lie in bed until the sun rose, discussing riots, the future, the possibilities they would have if they found a way out. For months they fluttered on the topic of escape, mulling it over and contemplating it from every angle. They understood the ramifications, the probabilities, their personal limits. No matter how restricted the government, they finally decided to flee the country to South Africa, now the most liberal and organized nation in the world. When the ship was routinely searched, they were discovered, crouched in the cargo hold. They had been thrown in prison for a year, damned to years of lingering psychological analysis and observation. They were released into a world as closed off as jail had been, and a marriage in as much disrepair as society itself. He remembered the way she looked at him when she came back, like he had failed her. She had looked at him like that every day when she woke up, every time she put her nose into her poison, she was looking at him now.
“Get lunch,” she said. “You look hungry.”
“I’m not, I’m just going to go back to the office and get a head start on my article.”
Maggie nodded. “I’ll be here when you get home.”
Harold sighed and stared into the face of the clock, noticing the hands crooked at an angle that signified the time he wanted to leave. He strode to the medicine cabinet to fetch a baggy and poured it onto the cheap, crease-less counter top, shaping the substance with his Union ID. His hand felt for the thin plastic straw as he stared at himself in the mirror, circles under his eyes, the light of youth gone straight out of them. I’m too young to be this old, he though and looked away, taking the drug up the straw. Immediately, a feeling of increase flooded him: elation, energy, and acceptance. For now, he belonged to them, his mind in their hands like dough. He leaned against the wall. What could one insubstantial man do? What could any man do?