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Clockwork City MAG
The thick smog always traps the late afternoon heat, and it muffles noises, too, causing everything to sound far away. A sour smell – the smell that always precedes the rain – hangs in the air. I’ll be fine, though, Henry thinks. I’ll be back under shelter before the acid begins to fall. As he walks home from school, Henry counts the concrete squares.
Today his return coincides with his neighbor’s. The man, a white-collar worker rumpled from a day of sitting, slips inside his house, calling a greeting to the dark silhouette within.
There are rumors floating around the neighborhood about that figure. There is no doubt it’s a woman, though no one has ever seen her. Maybe it is the man’s wife, but they’ve never been seen out together at a store, or cinema, or anywhere. Maybe a sickly daughter, but no physicians are ever seen entering the house. A housekeeper? A sister? Even they would show their faces once in a while. When questioned, the man always fluidly changes the subject.
It’s all a great mystery until Henry happens to glance over as the woman comes to the door. He loses his count of the concrete squares. Henry sees her for less than a second, but it’s enough for him to realize she’s like no one alive.
Never has he seen such an angle in a spine. Her movements are creaky like old machinery. Atop her head are a few white wisps. She is old, thinks Henry, with disgusted pity. She is suffering. She should have been sent to the white room to be put down a long time ago.
Released, he corrects himself. Released, not “put down.” It’s insensitive to think of assisted suicide as equivalent to euthanizing unwanted dogs at the pound. When old people can no longer contribute to economic production, release assists the country by ending their lives.
Henry is distracted from his thoughts by the strengthening odor saturating the heavy atmosphere. He needs to get inside soon. He turns into the path to his house. Climbs the three concrete steps. Reaches for the doorknob and twists.
The steel sphere doesn’t turn. Suddenly he remembers that his mother told him she’d be out with friends this afternoon and to make sure to take the key. The key … did he take it when he left this morning? He checks his pockets and his backpack, but he doesn’t find the house key anywhere. He rummages through three more times just to be sure. Of course he forgot. He always forgets. Henry feels panic beginning inside him.
Judging from the smell, now strong enough to sting his eyes, the rain could start any second. Henry scans the neighborhood for cover. There is nowhere to take shelter. No awnings, no umbrellas remain outside; they wouldn’t last beneath the acid deluge. There are no cars to hide under either. Henry steps back from his door. What should he do?
A single drop plips down next to Henry’s worn shoe. Nothing happens. The road and sidewalk are protected, covered in a special lacquer. Another drop plips onto Henry’s bag. The spot hisses, a tiny tendril of smoke floating up from the point of contact. He stares at the smoke for two seconds, then steps off the porch.
The lights in the neighboring house’s windows call to him. It’s his only choice. Nobody else is home on this Friday afternoon. Henry sprints next door and pounds on the steel. His eyes are wide, fixed desperately on the impassive gray rectangle.
The drops continue falling slowly, randomly. One lands on the cuff of his pants, eating a hole in the khaki. He gives the neighborhood another scan. No lights in any other house. No shelter.
Henry pounds harder. “Help! Please!” His voice cracks. It’s taking far too long. What if his neighbor is in the shower? What if he’s fallen asleep? And the old woman ….
The door clicks open. Henry scrambles inside, almost falling to the floor. He’s safe.
The foyer is bathed in yellow light. The floors are brown, with uneven concentric brown rings. It’s like one of the old pictures, Henry thinks. This style was characteristic of the early 2000s.
Henry’s neighbor smiles. Out of his business attire, the man looks ten years younger. He’s barefoot, too. “How’d you get into such a mess?”
“Locked out,” says Henry sheepishly.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay here until the rain stops ….”
“Henry. I’m Matthew. Take a seat. Want anything to drink?”
“Thanks. I’m fine.” Henry shuffles to the couch.
“Matthew? Who is that?” calls a wavering voice from the kitchen.
“Our neighbor, Henry, the high schooler,” he calls back. “He’s locked out.”
The tiny, hunchbacked woman steps into the living room.
Henry’s first glimpse of her wasn’t nearly as shocking as seeing her this close. The woman’s skin is pale, crumpled, and spotted. She holds a cane and walks so stiffly Henry thinks he can hear rusty creaks coming from her joints. Gravity shows its work on every part of her face, from her overhanging brow to her drooping jowls. This is unnatural, he thinks. Humans should not live long enough to look like this.
“Hello.” She offers a gnarled hand and a smile. “I’m Emily, Matthew’s mother.”
Henry, realizing he’s staring, quickly drops his eyes and takes Emily’s hand. It’s stiff, the knuckles swollen but warm. Tentatively, Henry moves his eyes to Emily’s face. There, amidst the folds of ancient skin, glimmer two blue eyes, lucid and piercing. Henry’s breath catches. The way she’s looking at him makes it seem like she knows what he’s thinking, about her, about the world.
“Nice to meet you,” he mumbles.
“It’s great to see someone new once in a while! It’s always good to get to know our neighbors. I love having fresh ears to listen to me ramble. Matthew’s heard all my stories, so he gets tired of them. But I still want to tell them, you know? I’ve lived a long time. I’ve seen a lot of change. If I don’t remind myself about how things once were, I get mopey.”
“But don’t they say that things were worse long ago? Like the standard of living, productivity of the economy, and availability of commodities?” Henry rattles off the list he’s memorized from history class.
“Is that what they’re teaching you?” Emily snorts. “I bet they never tell you how beautiful the world used to be. You see, now the sky’s always gray. But did you know, it used to be blue?
“Before the companies took over,” she begins, “there were so many more colors in this city. Grass, prickly and green, spotted with pink and white flowers, covered the ground. The air was so clear you could see the red of a cardinal at the top of a tree. The buildings weren’t all gray with soot. The sunlight made its way to the earth. Sometimes it was so bright it was hard to keep my eyes open, and lots of times I fell asleep lying on the grass in the park that was where the textile factory is now. I loved listening to the faint sounds of conversation, laughter, and kids playing. I always imagined that their voices danced together in the air and hopped up to the sky to rejoin the essence of the universe.”
Emily stares at a spot on the wall like she’s projecting her memories onto the blank space. Her eyes are still clear but unfocused. “Those were good times.”
“What about now?” ventures Henry. “I mean, if it was that good then, isn’t the present … hard to live with?”
She barks out a hoarse laugh. “Sure, it’s not so great, but I still love life. Even though I’ve lived so long, there’s always something new each day. Plus, I’m waiting on grandchildren.”
“Sheesh, Mom,” says Matthew in mock embarrassment. “Henry, I know you must think it’s weird for my mom to be alive. But as long as she wants to live, she will. I can’t send her to the white room. It’s murder, plain and simple, something people don’t seem to understand these days.”
Emily beams at her son. “See, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t think I’m afraid to die. I just … I love seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting. Even if my joints make it hard to leave my bed some days, the world captivates me. I’d like to spend just a little more time here. Even if it hurts.”
Her face, white and spotted like the moon, seems to pull something from Henry. A tide rises up inside him. He’s sitting on the couch, but at the same time he’s suspended in deep green among all he’s only seen as wavering shadows previously. Life, the world – Henry has never thought about any of it like Emily has. All he’s done is walk through it. It’s a means to an end, not a thing to be enjoyed. There was the ticking of the clock that he always obeyed. Go to school, go to college, get a job, go to the white room. But down underneath the tide, the ticking is dull. Henry likes it there.
He wants to rove the world and devour all of its curiosities. He wants to bask in the sun of Emily’s childhood. He wants to run, breathe hard, and inhale clean air. He wants to fill the cavity underneath his ribs with something warm, buzzing, and whole.
He understands now why Emily is still alive.
Emily tells him many stories of the past. Hours pass, and the rain slows to an echoing silence softened by the cheerful chatter inside the house. Finally Henry excuses himself, promising to come again.
“Bye,” he calls at the door, “And thanks.”
“Any time,” Emily replies.
“Be more careful next time rain’s in the forecast, kid,” cautions Matthew.
Henry steps out into the dark.
It’s still outside; no one’s leaving for or returning from work. The night air, damp and light from the rain, washes over Henry’s face and through his hair. He closes his eyes, breathes in like he’s trying to inhale the very spirit of the earth, and leans his head back. He opens his eyes wide again. There are three stars fixed in the sky. It’s his first time seeing them. He stares at the tiny points of light in the flat black sky.
He only begins moving when he starts to lose his balance, falling into that pitch black. Henry slowly walks toward his house. The chilly air tickling the back of his neck, making its way underneath his clothes. His blood rushes to his cheeks and fingers and legs. His mouth stretches into a grin. Isn’t this living?
The feeling doesn’t last. The next morning dawns dull. There is absolutely nothing, from the concrete streets to the gray sheet of sky, to draw Henry’s interest or passion. Sleep has faded the vibrancy he felt the previous night. As Henry plods to school, he counts the concrete squares again, his back hunched. The street noises pick up, and the scuff of Henry’s shambling steps merge with the rhythm of the clockwork city.