The carbon police chased me into a drainage tunnel emptying
into the bay. Lucky for me it was bone-dry.
"Mr. Byrne! Stop!" they shouted at me.
I stopped for a moment, stunned to hear the voices of some
of my former students. A heavy bullet smoked past my arm, lit
up the tunnel and dug itself into the floor, screaming. I kept
running. They were on skateboards, very fast. Inside the tunnel,
all bunched up together racing after me, they sounded like the
God of Thunder himself.
"Mr. Byrne! You're under arrest! Please stop!"
Bobby was so polite. At least I had taught him that.
Late July and the heat was everywhere. I found a side exit
and turned and turned again, falling down a pipe by accident.
In the dark it felt like about 20 feet. I scraped my back all
the way down. Up above, I heard my students skateboarding in the
other direction, their wheels and voices echoing off the tunnel
"He's running toward the airport!" Bobby
told the others.
"Let's shoot him!" shouted Jimmy.
I saw a watery light dancing in and out of my eye sight.
I limped toward it, thinking it must be one of the airport runway
lights jutting into the bay. My back was raw.
I sat down and collected myself. The floor was warm, even
in the nighttime, and at least 35 feet underground. My shoulder
burned. The bullet had nicked me.
The light scratched around inside the tunnel. I walked,
slowly, hoping to get to the small beach next to the runway. The
tunnel came up in a steep rise. The bay waters thrashed. The tunnel
gave way to sand. The bay was just feet away. A cool breeze rolled
over the beach. Despite the stew of heavy rubber and sewage smells
coming from the water, I felt relieved.
And there they were, on the beach. There was one older
cop with them, and he was so winded he couldn't speak.
"Mr. Byrne, stop!" Ralphie ordered me.
Jimmy fired a bullet before I had a chance to obey. It
flew past my hip.
Ralphie, Bobby, Jaimie and the old cop yelled at Jimmy
for shooting. Ah, my first graders, now irregular members of the
They should be in fourth grade by now. But that life is
over. History has been cooked.
I dove into the water, swam furiously for the underside
of the runway, the blessed dark. Bullets sprayed around me, then
stopped. I felt a hand on my ankle, then another. Several hands
grabbed me around the waist, dragged me out of the bay.
"You're under arrest, Mr. Byrne," Jamie
announced. Bobby cuffed my hands.
"Yeah!" Jimmy shouted. His clothes soaked through,
Jimmy punched me in the stomach several times. His fists, so small,
felt as hard as metal soup cans pounding my stomach. My knees
buckled a few inches, but I managed to stay upright. Jimmy had
stabbed another kid with a scissors in the arm once. I reported
the incident to the principal and the boy had been suspended from
school for a week. Jimmy wrote a letter of apology to the victim
before he could come back to school. It felt like a long time
The crew of little men marched me off to their electric
motored van, holding their skateboards in one hand and guns in
the other. I was placed in the back, on a metal seat on top of
the back tire. The whole ride, Jimmy nuzzled a gun against my
ribs. No one spoke.
The van silently climbed the bridge from the airport to
the city below, its dark towers spread upward as if in prayer.
Only a few lights were on, from the government offices. By law,
no one was allowed to keep their lights on after nine at night.
There were no other vehicles on the road, except for the police
The police owned the roads, but off in the distance you
could hear who had the street. Semi-automatic weapons fire, shouts,
screams sprinkled the blackness, added to the quiet tension in
The bridge road slides by the city in profile, so you can
see most of the island, sitting among the black churning waters
slopping up against the concrete borders of this fragile metropolis,
except for downtown. A 100-foot high seawall protected the downtown
financial district from flooding. It had been built quickly after
the first flood, and it proved quite resilient when more floods
came in succession over the half-decade. Roads had been constructed
on stilts to reach the higher floors of business buildings in
areas that had been flooded out. The floods that started five
years ago had taken out a number of poor and middle-class neighborhoods.
The financial district survived because of the wall, which resembled
the old Hoover Dam. It had a beautiful arc.
At the East Side precinct, the lights were on, of course.
As I was marched out of the van, I could see moss growing on the
facades of some of the apartment buildings and offices, reaching
up to the higher floors. This was the richest part of town.
The booking sergeant looked at me and shook his head. A
spread of blood leached from my white and green State University
tee-shirt, one of my last remaining pieces of clothing. Despite
the heat, I was shivering. I smelled like sewage.
"He ran from us!" Jimmy shouted at the sergeant.
"Thanks for sharing," the sergeant replied. It
felt good to know that Jimmy had not yet been made a little prince
"I've been shot." It was a mistake to speak.
The sergeant felled me with just one grimace. I knew that
look. I used to make that face when one of the students interrupted
The boys released me and I was taken by a big slab of walking
refrigerator to a holding cell. As we walked, all he said to me
was, "You stink."
He punched me in the back of the head.
There were about 15 men in the cell. Many of them were
milling about, whispering and smoking. I sat down on the nearest
bench by the lock. Most of the men ignored me. A few stared. Sweat
poured off me, mixing with the sewage. I wondered if the fever
was coming back.
An hour later, The Refrigerator Man took me out of the
cell and walked me, handcuffed, to the arraignment room. The skateboard
boys who captured me were there, sitting with their boards and
The judge, rushed, asked for the charges. Refrigerator,
with the paperwork in his meat-engorged hand, announced, "Mr.
Byrne is charged with releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."
The judge looked annoyed. "How did he do this?"
Refrigerator shuffled through the papers. "Mr. Byrne
broke into the carbon holding chamber under the Meadow Park. This
act resulted in the release of approximately one ton of carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere before the chamber could be re-sealed."
The judge looked horrified. "Do you realize what you've
done? You are a moral monster."
Jimmy, the one who had shot me, cheered and shook his skateboard
at the ceiling. I turned backward to look at him. He glared at
I wanted to say to the judge, "Spare me your self-righteous
indignation." Instead I hung my head, like most of the other
miscreants arriving in the room. Sweat soaked through my khakis
"How do you plead?"
"Guilty," I whispered through the fever pushing
through my veins.
"What did he say?" the judge demanded.
"He said guilty," Refrigerator Man told the court.
Jimmy cheered again.
"I told you he would say he's guilty!" Bobby
said. I still had one fan among my old students.
The judge sat back. He looked through a file on his desk.
"Mr. Byrne, you also escaped from a locked-down area, the
baseball stadium near the Meadow Park. How do plead to that crime?"
The judge looked satisfied. "At least you recognize
the depth of your depravity."
I hung my head and stared at the floor. I mumbled to myself.
The Refrigerator Man tugged at my arm. "Whadja say?"
"This is what it's like to be a criminal."
"Yeah. And now you're dead meat."
"I'm sorry I got blood on your hand."
He rubbed his dirty hand in my hair.
The judge banged the gavel on the stand. "You are
to be delivered to Carbon Camp 23 immediately. From there, you
and your wife and daughter will serve a 15-year sentence hard
Bobby, in the back, gasped. Jimmy laughed, out of all proportion,
as he did with everything.
The judge read the terms and details of the sentence. My
free labor to the city would start by pulling thousands of bodies
out of the bay, people who had drowned when the last great ice
sheet had torn away up north and built into a tidal surge that
washed over the city. They'd never been recovered. The bodies
were still out there, polluting the bay. The city, rich and poor
at the same time, needy and incompetent, and yet still grasping
for empire, wanted to clean the bay to get some fresh water pumping
through the city's taps. And people like me were a perfect
way to help get the job done for very little money.
Our first-floor apartment, though on high ground, had been
flooded out. My wife, four-year old daughter and I were lucky;
we survived the surge, unlike so many others, because we'd
been traveling upstate. But we became what the government called
Also, I found out I might be asked to lay pipe for transporting
and burying carbon underground. I had read about these things
in one of the illegal underground newspapers, but didn't
quite believe it all. In the camp, my wife, Mira, a software systems
engineer in a former life, would be "directed" to re-wiring
old internal combustion cars to use electricity generated by the
nuclear power grid, and my daughter, Athena, just four years old,
would be recruited to plant trees in the new forest on top of
Our wages? Two thin meals a day, and the opportunity to
live in a hot, stinking room.
Refrigerator Man shoved me through a long, dark hallway
and into a bio-diesel powered school bus full of prisoners, ready
to be sent to the labor camp. We were all shackled at the wrist
The ride out to the park was accomplished in silence. The
blood from the bullet nick had stopped running. A fever was indeed
coming on and I sweated and stank more. The two prisoners around
me moved a few inches away, but said nothing, which was about
as much as could be done. Anyway, everybody's attention was
fixed on what was happening outside the metal grille barring the
windows of the bus.
It was daytime now and we could see the heat smoke off
the city's streets. The sun was everywhere, consuming everything.
The buildings seemed to melt around us. Wild dogs fought in the
alleys in the uptown heights, over cats they'd killed, rats,
garbage, anything. Green molds and mosses erupted in the streets
and on buildings. Black water filled the low-lying neighborhoods
up to your knees. If you looked hard enough you could see fat
snakes snapping through the water. Nature was breaking out.
The elevated road skipped over the infested waste and the
bus took a rise at the hill separating the central city from the
outlying boroughs. Meadow Park was at the crest of this hill,
so it had escaped the worst of the flooding. It was here that
the city would make a stand to try to fight off the new weather.
"You got any cigarettes?" the guard inside the
gate asked in a stained voice to every shackled prisoner. If somebody
nodded yes they did, his face got a little brighter. He took the
cigarettes and moved the prisoner to the processing line. Tiger
mosquitoes buzzed around our heads. The guards, seeing my wound,
directed me to the camp infirmary several hundred yards away.
They had two 10-year-old kids escort me there. They held pistols
behind my back as I skipped clumsily over the sand, my hands and
legs locked in iron bracelets.
The stay at the infirmary was short. An aide, with a badge
that said "Duane, Medic" asked me to remove my college
tee-shirt. I did and he tossed it in the garbage. A dozen large
tiger mosquitoes, aroused, buzzed up out of the can. Duane Medic
looked at the wound and swabbed raw alcohol over the bullet nick.
The cut felt like it was burning from the inside-out. I yelled.
Duane said nothing. He cut some surgical tape with his teeth and
slapped it on top of store-bought cotton. A tiger mosquito landed
on the bullet nick. Duane slapped it dead.
"Thank you," I whispered as my nerve endings
"Go to hell, carbon scum. Give me your pants."
He threw me white pants and a white shirt with a yellow
circle on the right side of the chest to indicate prisoner status.
The guards took me out.
The first night in the warehouse is always the worst. The
place can house hundreds of men, but the ceiling is low and the
only vents are on the ceiling. The heat gathers in mid-day and
doesn't leave until early morning. The mosquitoes are very
aggressive. They fly in hordes and settle on any exposed flesh
three and four at a time. Prisoners steal whatever thread they
can to try to make mosquito nets. Fire ants throb over the floor
and bite your feet.
Sometimes the night guards spray the ceiling vents with
pesticide while we're sleeping, just for a laugh. The prisoners
hack up the poison and try to cover their mouths and noses and
eyes. After a few minutes the floor is covered with dead tiger
So tired, I slept, but I could feel the fever creeping
over me, and my sweat soaked the old thin pad I had been assigned.
We were herded out of the warehouse at 4 am to eat oatmeal
and drink weak coffee. The fever ebbed away. Then the guards took
us out to the bay. I wouldn't have the chance to see my wife
or daughter. They were kept in another part of the camp, split
off from the men by barbed wire and electric fencing.
The bay blooms with multiple life forms. Algae chew up
the oxygen in the water and spit out carbon dioxide. Pigeons and
sea gulls descend to eat the mosquitoes, but may get quickly overwhelmed
by their sheer numbers. A dozen may fall from the sky at a time,
bitten to death or sickened by the hordes of tigers. Besides malaria,
the tigers harbor West Nile virus.
At night, bats by the thousands would come from I don't
know where to eat the mosquitoes. Many of them would die too from
diseases living in the tigers. I stepped on dozens of dead bats
on the beach each morning.
We hauled up algae and people who had been floating in
the water for up to two years, since one of the floods. The idea
was to clean up the bay and use it as drinking water. We were
sent out in boats of ten prisoners and a guard with a rifle. The
city was having a hard time making the idea go. But the administration
didn't seem to have the resources or the will for other solutions.
"I love this job," one guy in the boat said to
"Yeah, and the benefits are amazing," I said.
The guy was as pale as anyone I had ever seen. He looked
as if someone had washed him in milk.
"This heat is great too. It's wonderful for the
skin," pale guy said.
"What are you doing here?"
"Shut up! Get to work!" the overheated guard
shouted us from the back of the boat.
We got back to work but kept talking.
"I like to drive cars."
"What's wrong with that?"
"They're the old kind. Internal combustion."
I was surprised. "Where do you find gasoline?"
"There's plenty around. You gotta look for it.
I used a guy who sold barrels of the stuff he pumped from old
We hooked and netted a dead man out of the bay. His face
looked like he hadn't expected whatever had happened. The
guy's clothes still hung on him like they were part of his
body, which was fortunate. A lot of his flesh had come off in
the water. He was very light to pick up. We'd bury his remains
in the cemetery later.
The pale guy carefully set the dead man down in the boat.
"I got five years for burning carbon."
We brought up a tangle of algae and threw it on the dead
"What about you?"
"I got 15 years."
The pale guy looked impressed and frightened at the same
The guard shouted again at us. We hauled up more algae
and piled it on the dead guy.
Pale guy whispered. "What did you do for that?"
"I'm a carbon refugee and I escaped from the
"That's worth 15 years?"
"I accidentally broke into the carbon holding chamber
underneath the park, trying to get out."
Pale guy smiled in what I took to be an ironic way.
"My name's Derek. How'd you manage that?"
"I'm Tremont. I had no idea where I was. I got
Derek wiped his face on his shoulder. Sweat rained off
us. "Still doesn't sound so bad."
"I released a ton of carbon when I opened the chamber."
"That's bad news, my man."
The guard leveled his rifle at us. End of conversation.
That night, just after lights out, Derek whispered to me
in the dark. I saw his bed was just a few steps across the room.
"Hey, what's your name?"
"Who are you talking to?" another guy asked.
"The guy who broke into the carbon holding chamber."
A chorus of voices harmonized, "That's not me."
When the chorus died, I said, "My name's Byrne."
"Byrne," Derek said, "why'd you try
That was the worst thing he could have said. From all directions
I got pounded with excited questions about fleeing. How did I
do it? Did I have any connections who could help them do it? How
long did it take? How did I get caught?
I didn't want to tell the story. I was sun-burned,
bitten up, hungry and exhausted. "I can't say,"
I said weakly.
Somebody threw an empty can of soda at my head. Then someone
else threw some old underwear. A couple of other things came my
way, amid the buzzing mosquitoes. The last thing thrown at me
was a pet rat, although I didn't know it at the time.
The rat landed on my feet. I kicked him off before he got
a good grasp on my big toe. I heard the thing scramble around
on the floor.
"OK, OK, OK. I'll tell you the story if someone
can help me get to see my wife and kid."
"No way," a prisoner shouted from the far reaches
of the warehouse.
"They're here, huh?" Derek said.
"They got 15 years along with me. You know the drill."
"I didn't know you had a family."
"Your wife probably hates your guts right now,"
somebody said in the blackness.
"Yeah, why do you think she wants to see you?"
This went on for several minutes. Finally, I just said.
"If you want to hear the story, someone is going to have
to help me see my wife and kid."
No one offered to help. The silence became another kind
of punishment. After awhile, Derek said, simply, "Goodnight,
Truth is, my kid was getting worse in the stadium. I didn't
say Athena was mute, did I? She'd never been particularly
socialized. She made a lot of animal-like grunts and growls, but
Athena couldn't speak anything more than that.
My wife and I had gone on a virtual tour of Greece for
our honeymoon. You can't go to the real Greece anymore. Most
of it is lying in state under the Mediterranean. (Sometimes you
can see the top of the Parthenon at low tide.) We fell in love
with the place. So when Mira got pregnant, we decided we would
name the baby Athena if we had a girl.
We knew the baby had a problem almost from the start. She
could make crying sounds, and babble a little, but she never advanced
much beyond that.
Mira and I took her to a dozen specialists. She was a very
tough kid. I had been prepared to live with a child, but not Moe
from the Three Stooges. Even after Athena had grown out of infancy,
she'd rip out our hair, twist our fingers backwards, and
hit Mira and me in the chest, legs, crotch with her little fists.
The kid was exhausting, and in my amateur opinion, possibly
psychotic. The only thing that settled her down a little was going
to the mountains. My wife had family upstate and we used their
house every few months. The house bordered a summer camp, closed
some 60 years we had heard, and up a three-mile hill. There was
a mountain that looked like a horse's saddle at the top.
Athena liked walking in the woods and looking at the trees and
streams cutting through the property. Our little family often
walked to the camp and looked at the mountain, quiet and old and
sleeping. Athena didn't hit as much on these trips. We thought
about moving up there, but kept coming up short on whether Mira
and I could take such big hits on our salaries and still pay the
bills. And we would need two cars to live up there.
So back to the city we went every time, where the kid got
I didn't think things could get much worse, but the
last flood hit very big and our little family was set down with
thousands of other people in canvas Army surplus tents in the
old, crumbling baseball stadium. Our home was the former third
base. We shared it with a dozen other families.
This was far too much change for Athena. After a few days,
she started attacking the other kids on the ball field. The other
families shunned us and my wife and I grew extremely uncomfortable.
Mira and I talked about what we could do. We sought out medical
help, but the few doctors coming to the stadium were doing triageour
child wasn't hurt and she wasn't doing dramatic damage to the
other kids. On the long list of medical complaints from the stadium's
new inhabitants, ours was pretty minor, and therefore ignored.
One night, Mira and I talked under our sweltering canvas
tent. The field was swarming with tiger mosquitoes and giant flies.
In the stands and outfield, people fought incessantly. There were
rumors that some people had been beaten to death in the concession
areas of the stadium. The police were overwhelmed. Very few city
or state cops were patrolling the refugee camp. Most of the National
Guard had been sent to Washington.
In the aftermath of the passage of the Carbon Laws, the
police corps were being retrained to deal with all sorts of new
crimes, from driving a gasoline-powered car to using heating oil.
Burning any hydrocarbon product was criminalized. The new government
created the Carbon Police irregulars to help supplement the professional
corps. Also, since the city's huge education system, which
enrolled one million kids annually, had collapsed, the formation
of the irregulars would help keep the kids under adult control,
"We should get out of here, Tree," she said.
A tiger landed on her arm. She slapped it dead.
"They took our car, Mira."
"We can't stay here. Athena won't survive
"I don't think the situation is that desperate.
I think she's doing OK."
"You don't see it, Tremont, because you don't
"I know she's hitting the other kids, but she's
surviving. She has food."
"She's getting bad. Really bad."
"What can we do, Mira? Our house is gone. I'm
out of a job. You're out of a job. We don't have any
"Maybe we can get back upstate to my family's
"But we need money. To travel."
"Maybe you can get to the bank."
"If they're still in business."
"They have to be. They're big. If you can get
out, you can get to the bank. Get whatever they'll give you
and come back here and get us out."
So that's why I left the camp. I was trying to go
to the bank.
The next morning I kissed my wife goodbye and waved to
Athena. She looked at me strangely.
I left third base. The sun was steaming at eight o'clock
in the morning. The interior of the stadium was a little cooler,
but I was on my guard. Here was the most dangerous area of the
Nobody was around. There was a ghost-like feeling to it.
I walked by the women's bathroom.
A kid, who looked to be about 14, shot out from the exit
and came up next to my ear. He whispered, "Are you ready
"No, I'm not ready for it."
To my surprise, he dropped off. I sprinted down the west
ramp and ran through the gate.
Kids on skateboards were racing around the parking lot.
I walked by them and headed toward our old neighborhood, a 10
minute drive from the stadium, but a 50 minute walk. The waters
had receded and I was hoping the bank might be open. I heard a
skateboard head toward me.
"Hey, Mr. Byrne."
I was very surprised to see Jimmy, one of my old students.
He was 10 years old now, bigger, but not by much.
"You can't leave, Mr. Byrne."
"You can't leave." He stopped his skateboard.
Five other 10-year-olds skated over and surrounded me. There were
several of my other former studentsRalphie, Jaime, Bobby
and a few others.
"I don't understand, Jimmy."
Jimmy drew a pistol from his pants and pointed it at my
"Understand this, Mr. Byrne."
"You've got to be kidding me."
"Jimmy, put the gun down," Bobby said. Jimmy
"Mr. Byrne, it's against the law to leave the
I was stunned. "Why?" I shouted.
Bobby shrugged his shoulders. "You're a carbon
refugee. You got to stay where you are."
For a second I felt guilty that I hadn't taught better
grammar to Bobby. Then I remembered where I was.
"Where is this coming from?"
"Part of the new carbon laws," Jimmy said. "You're
fried, man." He smiled in the dripping sun.
"And what do you have to do with this?" I demanded
"We're the cops now," Ralphie said.
I studied them. They had patches as big as their shoulders
on their tee-shirts. Each patch said, in yellow capital letters
on a blue background, "CARBON POLICE." They reminded
me of Boy Scout badges.
"This is nuts," I said.
Then the rest of them drew guns, slowly, out from under
"You better walk back inside, Mr. Byrne," Bobby
For several pregnant seconds I hesitated. They looked at
me steady and determined, with grim looks I can only describe
as having been cribbed from their video game heroes.
In triumph, the elementary school boys marched me back
to the turnstiles, their guns out in one hand, the skateboards
held in the other. Once I flipped the metal bar the boys holstered
their guns in their little blue shorts. Even they had the brains
not to go inside.
When I walked into our sweltering tent, I found Mira wrestling
with Athena to wash her hair using a bucket of water allocated
to us. Her ice-blonde hair hanging stringy and loose from an old
environmental organization baseball cap, my wife looked pretty
angry to see me.
"What are you doing here, Tree?"
"We can't leave."
"There are cops outside. They say we can't go.
I didn't even mention that the cops were 10-year-olds with
guns. That might really sink my argument.
Athena punched at Mira, got her at the cheekbone.
Her face wrinkled in pain, Mira let her go. Our four-year-old
ran out to the tents parked on second base. The base path was
dotted with dozens of people, huddled on the dirt, crouching or
sitting cross-legged, looking at the ground like it might deliver
something good. The heat penetrated everything.
I tried to explain. "Do you want to walk with me out
there and see for yourself?"
Mira studied my face for a few moments. She narrowed her
eyes, shook her head.
can't be, can't be
My wife turned from me, and walked out of the tent in the
direction of the outfield, and in that turn I felt my heart twist.
Then, worried about losing Athena, I ran after our child.
After a few minutes of frantic searching in the tents, I found
her hitting a boy eating his morning Army breakfast ration with
his family. They're called M.R.E.s, for Meals Ready To Eat. (The
Army had been dropping them in sacks twice a day from helicopters.)
The boy's mother socked Athena in the ear. My girl retreated for
a minute to the edge of the tent.
"I'm so sorry, Ma'am. I'm sorry."
"Get her out of here. Don't let her near my boy
I didn't want to argue the impossibility of that.
Athena saw me and hit me in the stomach. That gave me the chance
to throw my arms around her waist. I marched the kid back to our
tent, her little fists raining down on my head and shoulders.
Temporarily exhausted, Athena sat in the tent and let me
pour some water on her hair. I had no towel to dry her off. The
sun would do it anyway in 10 minutes. She sat on the floor and
began to weep silently, the tears running into the water already
on her face. She looked at me, with eyes that had sorrow and anger
in them at the same time.
When Mira came back from her wandering, she looked worn
down from the heat. I wasn't prepared for her mood.
"Tree, we're getting out of here."
"I don't know. But we're going to try again."
Sent out on a new mission, I explored the stadium's
various exits. Huddled in corners were desperate families and
wild-looking men, their clothes hanging off them, their eyes a
multitude that haunted your own. My nerves rose, high and tight.
I found my way to the dugout of our home team. On any other
occasion, this would have given me great pleasure. I walked inside,
to the tunnel leading to the home clubhouse. Several men were
occupying the room. They looked at me with quiet hostility.
"Who're you?" asked the smallest one.
"That's right. You're nobody, nowhere."
"I'm just taking a walk."
"Nobody, pretty soon no one'll remember you."
"You might be right about that. I'm just trying
to find a way out of here. Isn't anyone here interested in
The room got quiet. "You want to get out. There's
a price for that."
"What's the price?"
"What have you got?"
"You're making a great offer. Maybe you'll
stay here. Work for us."
I wasn't entirely sure what he meant.
A bigger man sitting in the back of the clubhouse, eating
about four M.R.E.s at the same time, spoke up. "Wayne, leave
him alone. The guy's got nothing."
"He owes me, he owes me," Wayne insisted.
The bigger man laughed. "Shut up, Wayne. You owe me."
Then he directed a very big baseball bat at me. "You, what's
"Burns, you want to find a way out. OK. One of the
guys here is going with you. That way we share the info. Got it?"
I nodded. "Thank you."
"Shut up. Herb, you go with Burns."
Herb rose slowly from a metal chair. Herb was about 5 foot,
5 inches with a barrel chest, and he wore a team sweatshirt about
two sizes too big for him. He took a baseball bat.
Herb put a firm hand on my back. I understood. We started
to walk out.
"The team office might be a good place to start,"
Herb nodded and pointed. We walked through a long concrete
hallway. At the receptionist's desk to the office we saw
a fire door and ignored it. Exploring the team offices proved
a fruitless exercise. Chairs were missing. Doors were gone. Desks
were busted up or stolen. The carpets had been ripped apart. The
remnants of several small fires dotted the concrete floor. Someone
had used books and team records as kindling. Historical players'
and corporate officers' pictures were broken and mangled.
At the end of our tour, I looked at the fire door again.
We had nothing so far, so I walked through the exit without telling
Herb. With a hand on my back, he let me.
To my surprise, there was a staircase going up, and one
going down. I thought for a moment, and started to walk on the
one going down.
"What're you doing?" Herb asked, tense,
his fist curled around the bat.
"If we take the one going up, we're just going
to go up. We're already below ground. Why would they have
a down staircase if we're already in the basement?"
This confused him. "I'm going to be behind you
all the way." He jabbed the butt end of his bat in my chest.
"Yes, you will."
At the top of the steps was a fire emergency box. I opened
it and looked through the two shelves, under the distrustful eyes
of Herb and his bat. The box held a battery-powered flashlight.
"We're going to need this," I told him.
"Yeah, OK. Don't be stupid."
"There's no light down there."
"Don't be stupid."
"I'll try not to be stupid."
"OK." Herb stared at me. I couldn't stop
myself from speaking.
We two walked slowly down the stairs. A family of rats
flew away from us, ran down the stairs. We followed.
The stairs took us to a tunnel, the rats our guides. It
took some minutes to traverse the distance. Herb was silent, but
would occasionally tap me on the shoulder with the bat to let
me know he was still there.
We came to a steel door with a wheel on the front, which
it look like the deck of a ship. The rats fled to a drainage tunnel.
I put the flashlight on the door. The door had a large warning
signal on it. I recognized the symbol from history books I had
studied at the state university. When the United States was engaged
in the Cold War, these symbols were posted in schools, government
offices and other places to give the population refuge if the
Soviet Union were to attack the country with nuclear weapons.
The symbols were part of something called the civil defense system.
"What's that?" Herb asked, pointing with
his bat at the sign, quite suspicious.
"It's nothing. Just an old ghost."
He tapped me on the shoulder again. "I don't
I tried to be pleasant. "Me neither."
A rat slipped under my feet and squeezed itself through
the door with the civil defense sign.
"The door isn't very secure. We might be able
to open it."
"You want to go in?"
"That's our job, isn't it? To find a way
out of the stadium complex?"
"It's your butt on the line, Burns, not mine."
I sort of already knew this as I turned the wheel. The
wheel was very tight. I instantly wished for some WD-40 grease,
and simultaneously wondered if using it would be considered bad
for the environment now and against the law.
I sweated with the wheel for more than an hour, as Herb
watched, alternatively impassive and impatient. It turned about
90 degrees, but I was ready to give up.
Herb picked up the burden, much to my surprise. He managed
to turn the wheel another 90 degrees, in about a half hour of
time. What had we accomplished? More rats could now get through
the bigger door opening.
I took another turn. The door had very little give left
in it. Herb helped me, again surprising me. Our hands burned from
The lock groaned and clicked. It wasn't dramatic,
like I thought it would be after all that sweat and muscle. The
door opened into a large chamber which was even darker than the
tunnel. It felt like we were in an indoor stadium, except with
no air conditioning. The humidity was awful. After a few minutes,
Herb and I were soaked with moisture.
We walked in the dark, the path lit only by a flashlight.
The air was heavy and it was difficult to breathe. Herb and I
walked slowly through the dampness. He still followed me, but
had stopped tapping me on the shoulder with the bat and I was
"There's something over to the side," Herb
said. A small red dot carved out the only light we could see in
The dot drew us in. I fell over a piece of metal, with
a grid pattern that tattooed my knee and I dropped the flashlight.
Herb picked it up and shone it on a staircase. I pulled myself
up the steps, to another metal door at the top.
"Where are you going?" Herb demanded.
"You see any other way out of here? I'm not even
sure I could find our way back to the stadium at this point."
"Goddamn it, Burns. You're getting me in too
I was about to say something sarcastic, but a child's
voice broke in.
"Stop right there!"
High-powered flashlights blinded my eyes. A baseball bat
smashed my ribs on the right side. I guessed Herb. I crumpled
on the steps at the foot of the metal door.
From the apex of the stairs I saw Herb walk calmly to the
flashlights. My eyes had adjusted enough to see several under-age
kids in tee-shirts with radios on their belts. They looked to
be about 14 years old and sweated profusely.
"Who are you?" Herb boomed at them.
"Police. You're in the carbon holding chamber
and you're under arrest."
"Hey, shouldn't you be doing your homework?"
The lead one, the one who spoke, pulled a radio out of
his belt and began telling whoever was on the other end about
a break-in in the carbon holding chamber near the old baseball
"We need help," he said, a little unsteadily
after having a look at Herb.
There were four of them and one Herb. One kid tried to
pull a gun out of a new holster that crackled when it opened.
Herb slammed the boy's wrist. The boy went down screaming.
The bat flew into another boy cop's ribs. The sound
of the bones breaking filled the big room. The other two boys
fumbled to get their guns, but Herb was in a happy and purposeful
mood. He hit one boy in the shoulder, then the base of his back.
The last boy had managed to get the gun out and pointed it, nervously
I tried to open the metal door, but this one was considerably
tougher than the entrance we found. The squeak on the door brought
the kid cop's eyes on me.
"Stop!" he shouted at me. That was the last thing
he said. Herb put a fist in the boy's neck and the boy went
down in a crazy-leg dance. Then Herb collected everybody's
guns and stuffed them all around the inside of his pants like
"This door isn't gonna move," was all I
Herb walked up the stairs, holding a gun in his meaty hand
and said, "I missed you saying thank you, Mr. Herb,
for saving my life.'"
"Thank you Mr. Herb. But I missed you saying you're
sorry for hitting me in the ribs."
"Man, that was nothing. You're useless and I
didn't need you in the way."
I silently agreed, my State University shirt betraying
me as a non-warrior.
Then Herb started shooting the metal door's metal
wheel knob. I crawled as quickly as I could down the stairs as
the bullets dug into the metal. The gun's explosions were
like strobe waves, lightning flashes up close. When he finished
all the bullets in one gun, he took up another. The bullets danced
After several minutes, dozens of bullet casings strewn
about the floor, the middle of the door had been obliterated.
Herb had killed the metal wheel lock and the hinges. He waved
to me to come up the stairs.
"Come on, Useless."
There were three tunnels going in different directions,
with crude lights hung every 20 feet or so.
We heard alarms in the distance, but just barely.
"This is where we split up, Useless."
I didn't wait for anything else. Herb headed toward
one tunnel, with the police flashlight and one gun he hadn't
My flashlight was back in the chamber, and I wasn't
going to go get back and get it. That's how I ended up stumbling
in the dark, desperate for something resembling an exit. And that's
where my old students found me again.
It turns out I didn't need anyone's help to see
my wife. They let men with families see their wives once a month,
for 15 minutes. After a month of fishing bodies and algae out
of the bay, I got showered and dressed in the camp uniform of
fresh white pants and a white tee-shirt with the bright yellow
sun on the right side of the chest. If you saw it one way, the
uniform was the camp director's effort to show some compassion
to the inmates. White reflects sunlight so you don't get
too hot. However, if you saw it another way, the uniform was also
an easy way to identify us if someone should try to escape.
I walked in the dust from my bunk to the enclosure where
I would meet my wife and child. It was a two-mile hike. The sky
was pocked with clouds heavy with moisture. The humidity was intense
and squeezed the sweat out of me just two minutes into our journey.
Two guards holding automatic weapons walked on either side
"How old are you?" I asked the boy on my right.
He looked up at me for a moment and said nothing.
I turned to the boy on my left.
"How old are you?"
"Twelve," he said with a grimace.
When we reached the enclosure I was placed in a square
box fence about 10 feet by 10 feet, ringed by razor wire. My wife
would be on the other side of the fence. I wondered how much carbon
was burned to make the razor wire.
I stood and waited. From a distance, I could see a woman
and her child, flanked by two police kids, walking slowly from
the cabins on the southern side of the camp, close to the big
hill of an old neighborhood. I could see apartment towers burning
with explosions of moss and vines. The plants seemed to be encircling
the brick and glass in an effort to strangle each building.
The air grew very still. There seemed to be no measurable
wind. As they approached the box, I could see it was my wife and
daughter and they seemed to be walking even more slowly than when
they started. As Mira and Athena got closer, I could see why.
Athena was in leg irons.
They came up to the fence separating us. The police kids
dropped back a few feet. Mira put her hand on the fence. I put
my hand on hers, but she took it away and turned her face from
"They put these on Athena so she won't run away.
She keeps trying to run away."
"What is she doing?"
"Planting trees over there." She pointed to several
rows of fragile saplings about three hundred yards across a field
of lush and happy weeds.
"Look at me," I demanded, but she wouldn't.
Her deep brown eyes were kept to the gravel. Her trunk and arms
were thinner. The yellow sun tee-shirt sagged on her. She still
wore the same environmental organization baseball cap, ragged
and careworn. Little threads hung from the bill like worms.
Athena, dressed in a daughter version of the same outfit,
wore a rag on her forehead to try to protect herself from the
sun, and looked at me with what I took to be blankness. She stood
very still and didn't betray any recognition of me. The leg
irons sat on her ankles and her feet sank into the gravel.
Then Mira looked at me. There was a deep burn under her
"It's nothing, Tree. I was doing an electrical
retrofit of an engine and there was a spark. I had my face right
Mira plunged her head down into her shoulders. It began
to rain, softly, the water making the gravel hiss under our feet.
Only good thing about the rain is that the mosquitoes won't
fly in it.
The air was heavier than ever.
"Besides the burn, how's the job?" I didn't
know what else to say.
"I figured out the logic of it. I'm doing what
they ask me to do."
"How are you?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
I tried to speak to our daughter. "Athena, I'm
She stared at the ground.
Mira gestured to the police kids. "We're ready."
"We have 15 minutes!" I shouted out. "Don't
you want to ask me anything?"
The guards had joined them. Mira turned back with the barest
of looks, then took up Athena's hand. Athena let her. They
shuffled away, twins in shackles, one physically imprisoned, the
I walked back to the other side of the compound under the
guard of my police kids, the rain gathering around us in small
Next day, the rain had stopped. The crews were sent out
on the bay. Derek was on another boat. He waved to me and I nodded
The mosquitoes buzzed around us. They dove on our skin
with quickness and killing style. In minutes, my arms and neck
were red with bites. The heat seemed to fill every orifice in
my body. It was like being inflated. I felt as if I would explode.
The wind grew still, like the day before. A drop fell on
my nose. I looked across the bay. The sky was coal-black. The
rain came at us in waves. In minutes, our boats were filling with
water. A wind from the north part of the bay, where it meets the
Atlantic, rammed us like a freight train and scattered the crews
like dice. A few boats got swamped. Rain pounded down on the water.
The men started yelling. Our guard, 12 years old, panicked and
fired his gun in the air, many times. One bullet defeated the
wind, came back down through the rain and hit one of my boat mates
smack on the top of the head. The guy fell down, his head laid
wide open, blood everywhere, and I just stood up in the boat and
stared. The guard started yelling at me, but no part of me could
One guy next to my seat shoved me back down and I put the
dead man's head in my lap and I talked to him.
"Everything's OK, everything's OK,"
I said to the blank eyes, and I didn't even know him. The
guard kept yelling and he then he pointed his gun at me.
My seat mate punched me in the arm. I understood. We threw
the dead guy overboard as rain smashed into the boat. We'd
have to pick him out of the bay later, but we had to protect the
guard now from trying to explain why he had shot a prisoner in
a boat in the middle of a rainstorm. The wind pushed us onto a
sand bar about fifty yards from the shore. The guard, screaming
at us and pointing his gun very nervously all around, marched
us off the boat and we struggled through the washing machine-like
water toward the beach.
The rain fell for two weeks. Going out on the bay was impossible.
The administration tried to put us to work digging a tunnel for
a new carbon holding chamber. The guards, who ranged in age from
13 to 15 years old, had us drive ten-foot high stakes around the
site, then drape a huge canvas on the stakes, taken from the old
stadium, it looked like, to be used for rain delays.
"God, I love this job."
There was Derek next to me, and I hadn't even noticed.
"The health insurance is great too."
We were soaked through with rain. The little sun circles
on our tee-shirts descended as the rain wormed its way through
The soil, impregnated with water, was obviously resistant
to any digging. Every shovel of mud taken out of the site quickly
filled with water. The guards grew flustered when Derek pointed
out the problem. A kid guard was sent back to ask the administration
what should be done.
The team waited under the canvas for 20 minutes. It started
"Let's count the minutes it takes for the canvas
to fall in," Derek sang out. The kid guards didn't know
what to do. They just stood there, like us, getting soaked. One
of them stared at Derek and I thought he might get punched.
"We're going back to the warehouse," the
kid guard announced upon returning. A number of men, including
Derek, got sent to help out in the engine house, where my wife
worked. I asked him if he had seen a woman with a beige baseball
cap working on the engines.
"Sorry, man. No dice there."
Each day I was delivered to the camp administrator's office
to do some typing and clerical work. I found out that the city
had thousands of other carbon refugees waiting to be processed.
The camp had no place for them. Carbon camp 24 was being built
on the hill where Mira and I used to live. A dozen apartment houses,
including ours, were to be demolished to make way for the new
camp. They were worthless now anyway.
The rain came and came.
"You ever been in a monsoon?" Derek asked me
while we were lying on our bunks one rain-splattered night before
"No. Never seen one."
"I was in the Bangladeshi-Sri Lankan War."
"Yeah I was U.S. Army and I fought over there in '98.
This rain reminds of the monsoons."
All night water hit the warehouse's metal roof like
bullets. And Bangladesh and Sri Lanka no longer existed.
After a month, we woke to a brilliant September sun. The
bay had broken into the camp in streams, brooks, pools, ponds,
lakes. We waded in water up to our shins. Whatever wasn't
underwater was a thick mud that clung to our ankles. The mosquitoes
broke out of their hiding places to dive bomb us at will.
The men in the warehouse were covered with welts, rashes
and boils. We were uglier and smellier than ever. A dozen men
got sick with unknown plagues and were taken to the infirmary.
We never saw them again.
When the rest of us went out on the bay after the rains,
there were more bodies than I remembered. I tried to become like
a factory farm worker. Haul them out like hay, throw them out
on the beach and go get some more. The bodies were heavy and bloated.
I didn't want to think about them, their pasts as human beings,
their feelings. I tried to think of them like sausages or blobs.
Derek made up names for some of them. He called one guy
"Joe Schmuckatelli." Everyone laughed at that one. We
hauled in an enormously fat man another day. Derek named him "Jerry
Tubbs." That brought a sly humor to most of the boat.
But everyone in the boat would get quiet when we netted
a child. I thought of my daughter.
My turn came around to see my family again. Mira didn't
show, but the guards brought Athena and no explanations about
my wife. Athena looked at me through the fencing. I wanted to
find a hint of recognition. Athena showed neither recognition
nor repulsion. She just stood there and looked me up and down.
When the 15-minute time limit was up, I waved to her and Athena
put her hand up.
Another month went by. The rain had been replaced by intense
heat. Our bay and the rain-borne streams retreated backward. The
mosquito population dropped off and I was relieved. The fire ants
were still a minor nightmare. In the camp one night I noticed
that the buildings at the top of the hill were gone. I remembered
a story of some dead French writer who went crazy if he traveled
more than 30 miles from his home. I had been born here, but I
felt like him.
When I saw Athena again, she reached out her hand to my
own and held it for a few seconds. I looked at her in surprise
and she started to cry. The kid guards took her away.
Deep into November the heat reached more deeply into us
than ever before. The skin on my hands cracked open from the daily
work in the water. I had a dozen little cuts all over my fingers
and palms, especially near the nail. My request to go to the infirmary
was turned down.
"You know what I'm thinking, Mr. Burn-It-Up?"
Derek said to me in the boat as we hauled up yet another blob.
"I have no idea."
"I'm thinking revolution."
"What does that mean?"
The kid guard shouted an obscenity at us. Derek nodded
In the warehouse that night I lay on my bunk and thought
about the old days, before the floods. You could read a magazine
or a book. You could go out for coffee. There was something called
the weekend. I would walk in Meadow Park and think about things.
After an hour of admiring the grass, cattails and the lakes, I
could go home to my smiling wife and we would make turkey burgers
with pasta sauce and pita bread. We went to the movies. We complained
about the government and our jobs. We talked about the future.
We planned. We tried to be good citizens.
My wife and I worried about the floods. We recycledglass,
plastic, and paper. We turned off the lights when we left a room.
We joined environmental groups. I sent money to a land trust to
help preserve unique nature reserves around the world. Mira wrote
letters to the White House to ask the government to do something
about the floods. We received form letters in reply telling Mira
that the President appreciated her expressing her point of view.
Derek broke into my mood. "Burn-it-up, we gotta bust
out of this place." He was right next to me, whispering.
I had no idea how long he had been there.
"I already tried that."
"No, man, I'm serious. We're gonna die here."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Then you're already dead." He turned away
in disgust and hauled himself up to his bunk.
The heat lay on the land. The boat crews covered themselves
up as much as we could. We wore ripped tee-shirts and rags around
our heads and necks, bunched up in twos and threes.
Out on the bay, the high temperature made the sewage and
the bodies stink. Our eyes stung and our stomachs retched. We
tied rags around our noses and our mouths. Occasionally, birds
dropped from the sky onto our heads. The world around us felt
like it was melting. The heat shut everyone up. It was too hot
to even make the effort to talk.
One morning, the guy in the next bunk didn't wake
up. On the way to the bay after breakfast, several men vomited
from the heat. We told the kid guards to get the sick men to the
infirmary. They yelled at us to shut up and get in the boats.
The kid guards pointed their guns at us like they were
always fond of doing, but for the first time I saw uncertainty
in their eyes.
"You know, this is really stupid," Derek said.
He had covered his pale skin as much as possible, but where he
hadn't been able to, there were explosions of raw red flesh.
In the movies there is always a moment when what you see
on the screen changes. The hero takes the gun from the villain.
The cornered army fights back viciously and overcomes unbelievable
odds to beat the bad guys. That didn't happen here.
We trudged out to the bay day after day and men continued
to die. We buried them as far from the warehouse as we could.
The bay was killing us. Anyone could plainly see that with far
fewer men, the dead bodies in the bay were going to outlast us.
Still, we went out there because kids 12 to16 years old had guns
I started vomiting every night when we came in off the
water. After three nights of this, I had nothing left to vomit.
I was dry heaving and somebody went to Duane and he visited me
at the warehouse.
I lay on my bunk and stared into space. I felt like I was
"You have no physical disease," Duane said. "You're
suffering from a nervous condition."
Derek, hovering nearby, looked at Duane and started to
laugh. Duane turned to him and said, "Shut up, carbon scum."
I was beginning to think Duane had very little clever insult vocabulary
to draw on.
After that brilliant comeback, Duane left. Derek, bragging
of his Army training, cut a vein in my arm with a clandestine
knife and fed water into it from a plastic water bottle and rubber
tubing he had stolen from the infirmary, or so he said. Derek
had sterilized both with hot water from the infirmary. He said
Duane had given him the water. Every night he fed the tubing and
bottle with more water, which went into my arm. Despite all the
drama, all I could think of was how much carbon had been burned
in making the plastic water bottle.
After a week I had stabilized, but I was still pretty weak.
I ate breakfast carefully and kept it down. The guards told me
to get ready to go out on the bay. It was 8 o'clock in the
morning and the temperature felt like 80 degrees.
On the beach, as we were about to get into the boats, a
sharp scent rolled over us, distinctive even for the bay. Derek
got out of his boat and looked across the beach. A purple cloud
hung over the camp.
All the men did the same. We looked behind us and saw the
weeds in the park burning. The purple cloud balled up. I ran toward
it, slowly and awkwardly. The kid guards threatened to shoot and
then they did. I didn't care. The other prisoners started
We were all running in a wounded, old man kind of gimp,
torn by fevers and strange ailments, but we were running. One
prisoner was shot and he fell down. Derek took off into the trees
by the warehouse, which was on fire. The kid guards ripped bullets
at him. Each bullet set a tree on fire. A kid guard hit him square
in the back of the ribs. I heard him yelling, but he kept on,
plunging into the fire. Another man went down under gunfire. I
kept going, despite all yelling at me to stop. A few men ran in
Smoke rolled over us and that probably saved me. The kid
guards couldn't see me well enough to target. I heard them
shouting and running after us, but we kept on going. I heard shots
going off and the sounds of men heaving with breath, including
I made it to the fence walling the men off from the women.
Part of the fence had been torn down. Fat tire tracks gave away
what might have happened. Somebody panicked in the fire and tried
to drive away in an electric-powered truck.
I was very winded, so I slowed down, put my hands on my
knees and looked around. Much of the camp seemed to be abandoned.
Fire ate up the new forest seedlings and anything green around
them. Even the dirt was on fire. Something like this had happened
in the Everglades once. The stench from organic material burning
catches in the front of your throat and doesn't let go.
In the midst of all this, I thought about my problem. How
do you find a child in a war zone when she can't scream?
The cabins and warehouses in the camp were still mostly
intact. I walked into several cabins and found no one.
A kid guard saw me walking around and shouted. I put my
hands up. He drew closer with a sleek, handsome gun. His face
was marked with smoke. I thought he looked about twelve years
He started to speak. I cut him off. "I'm looking
for my daughter."
"Shoot me already. I'm tired of this."
He edged closer to me. "Carbon scum."
"Come on. Do it."
He got the gun right up into my jaw. "Carbon scum."
The boy held the gun in a tight way, but something in his
eyes convinced me he wouldn't shoot.
"If you're not going to shoot me, let me find
I wanted to say to him, "Can't you find something
more interesting to say?" But I just looked at him.
The boy narrowed his eyes. "Carbon scum."
"I need to find my daughter. She's four and a
half years old and she can't talk."
"There's a fire behind you that's eating
everything. I am trying to find my daughter."
"Son, I'm going to put my hand on the gun. I
am going to move it away from my face."
So I did and the boy let me. I edged my hand to his wrist
and relieved the guard of the gun. He had a very funny look on
his face, as if he was happy to be rid of it. I saw him wander
off in the direction of the bay, muttering, "Carbon scum,
The smoke fell on me and I was choking on it. I tied my
yellow sun tee-shirt around my nose and mouth and with the gun
in my hand I threaded my way through it. From across the edge
of the camp, the baby trees in the forest were burning. The lush
plants and vines and weeds were all on fire. I stared at it all
for seconds. A glint of steel hit me from the middle of the tree
plantings. I ran to it.
Where is it written that human beings are inherently rational?
Perhaps we're more ruled by our emotions than we care to
admit. I found my baby in the forest, still in leg irons, among
burnt seedlings and smoking dirt, crying silently. Athena's
face was dirty and her little tee-shirt and pants were torn. She
had scorch marks on her feet. I put the gun in my pants pocket.
I looked in her eyes.
My daughter's breathing was labored. I took the tee-shirt
off my mouth and breathed into hers for a few minutes. I tore
off a piece of her pants leg and tied it around her nose and mouth.
I dressed my own face with my tee-shirt again and took up Athena
in my arms. We walked away from the fire, which spread in the
direction of the eastern wind. We walked for about a half-hour,
45 minutes, I'm not sure. I was very tired from carrying
Beyond one of the few rows of intact plane trees, I saw
an orange coded number on asphalt"U165." We had
found the stadium parking lot, and the old baseball park blooming
up in front of us. A gray haze from the burning forest hung over
the top tiers. To me, it looked as ancient as a Roman ruin.
My old students were still there, lined up like a firing
squad, guns pointed, their skateboards next to them.
"Don't move," Jimmy said.
I took the tee-shirt off my face and put Athena down.
"I said don't move!"
"It's Mr. Byrne," Jaimie said.
"You're going to shoot me?"
"I already did that. I'll do it again."
"How old are you, Jimmy?"
"I don't remember."
"You're 10 years old. And you're too young
for all this."
"You're carbon scum."
"I've been hearing that a lot today." I
put my hand in my pocket. I took it as a good sign that I hadn't
been shot yet. I drew the gun out of my pocket and held it at
"There are six of us and one of you," Jimmy said.
"Let him go, Jimmy," Ralphie said.
"No! We should shoot him!"
"You can shoot me, Jimmy, and my little daughter here,
as much as it pains me to say it. I've never used a gun.
But I know how to click off the safety and fire this thing. I
can hurt at least one of you. Maybe I'll hit you in the arm,
or the leg. Maybe I'll get a vein."
"I'll shoot you myself," Jimmy shouted.
"I've had a really bad day," I told him.
The other boys clicked on their safeties and slowly put
their guns in their underpants. Jimmy stood there.
"Now it's just you and me, Jimmy."
Jimmy drew his gun back and aimed again. He looked in my
eyes and saw something different.
"His eyes are weird!" Ralphie said.
Jimmy's gun hand started to shake.
I moved closer to him.
Jimmy kept his hand on the trigger.
"Today is not the day for this," I told him.
He dropped the gun to his side and I took it from him.
The boy looked shrunken.
"Now, everyone else, Ralphie, Jaimie, Bobby, I want
your guns too."
Silently, they kneeled and placed them with the utmost
care in the "U165" parking space.
I picked them all up and wrapped them in my smoke-stained
I stood up and said, "Now, you little maniacs, go
They looked at me with hurt feelings. Then the boys skated
off in the parking lot. Jimmy was the last to go. The boy stared
at me for a few seconds, picked up his skateboard and threw it
down, angry, on the asphalt. He wheeled off, following his friends.
I walked in a heavy way, holding my daughter, in leg irons,
and with four guns in my pockets. The stadium was open. I wondered
what I would find in there. The turnstiles gave easily under my
Inside, away from the sun, the concrete walls were cool.
I had not felt anything cool since the drought started. I leaned
against the ramp and slumped down, holding my daughter as steady
as I could.
I think I fell asleep first and she followed. Athena woke
up first. I felt her tears on my arm.
"You must be hungry, kid. Let's try to find something
I walked, holding my daughter, to the only place in the
stadium where I thought there might be some food. The field was
deserted. The western and northern tiers of seats, shaded for
much of the day, held a few dozen families, with tents pitched
over several seats. The place smelled of sewage.
Behind the clubhouse door, a group of a dozen men played
video games or talked among themselves. They looked at me when
I walked in, guarded but unafraid, perhaps because of my little
daughter. Herb was in the middle of the main group.
"Useless, I never expected to see you again."
"I never expected to see you either."
"What you got there?"
"Who the hell would be crazy enough to put leg irons
on a little kid?"
"That's a very good question."
"What do you want, Useless?"
"Number one, we want some food. Number two, I want
to get some help in getting these irons off of her. Number three,
I want a car."
Herb laughed. The other men laughed.
"What happened to the other guy? The big, tall guy?"
"He had to go away," Herb said. "He left
me in charge."
"Can you give us something to eat?"
"Why should I do that?"
I put Athena down on the floor.
"I'm going to be very careful right now. I'm
going to take some things out of my pockets. I am not going to
hurt anyone here."
So, of course, the men drew guns on me. I pulled three
of the four guns out of my pockets and laid them on the floor.
One of the men whistled.
"That's police issue."
"This is what I have to trade."
"That's not much," Wayne said.
"Shut up, Wayne," Herb said. "Get them something
A man set down on a nearby table six Army ration meals,
including freeze-dried lasagna, and dried fruit. My daughter and
I ate sloppy and we didn't care. The men in our midst watched
us as if we were zoo specimens.
When we finished, Herb said, "Joe, go do your thing."
A man with an ax came toward us. We put Athena on the cool
carpeted floor and spread her feet as far apart as they could
go. She seemed to understand because she didn't fight.
Joe swung hard and clean. The chain broke under two strikes.
"I got a metal saw," Joe volunteered. He spent
the greater part of the afternoon grinding against Athena's
encased ankles while she watched and ate Army M.R.E. rations.
We all watched silently.
As the night came down, Athena was freed from her irons.
She was as happy as I had ever seen her. She hugged me. She hugged
Joe. She hugged Herb.
The mood in the room changed considerably. "Hey, that's
alright," Herb said to Athena. "No need to thank me."
I took this opportunity to ask Herb, "Can you help
me get a car?"
"There's a guy over by the airport who may have
something. That's the best I can do for you. There aren't
a lot of cars around these days. Richie, take Useless and the
kid over there."
Richie walked us in the dark to an auto body shop by the
airport. The heat sank into Athena and me. We started to wilt
in it. The mosquitoes, so quiet during the fire, came out and
plunged their fangs into us a number of times. But the promise
of a car kept us plodding on.
We knocked on the door of the shop. The lights were out,
by law. Richie knocked again.
"Hey, Marblehead, open the door! It's Richie!"
We heard creaking sounds on the floor. A flashlight hit
us in the eyes.
"Hey, Richie. What are you doin' here? It's
late, lights out."
"Herb sent me."
"Herb wants you to lend these people a car."
"Don't you mean, give them a car?"
"Something like that, Marblehead."
"What do I get?"
"Herb's undying gratitude. With the emphasis
on the undying."
The flashlight lowered a bit and I could see a well-seamed,
hairless face smiling devilishly.
"I don't have much undying left to do, Richie.
And you tell me Herb's gonna take on his old uncle?
"Hard to tell what Herb will do, Marblehead. Every
day is different."
Marblehead grunted and waved at us. "Come in the back."
He spoke to Richie in a gruff tone too. "Tell Herb
I want some kind of payment for this. I put in a lot of effort
Richie promised to work on it.
A lonely box of a car sat in the dirt yard with its trunk
facing the bay, site of all my recent work. Marblehead scanned
it with the flashlight.
"This is all that I've got right now, Richie."
"And it's not much, buddy."
The car consisted of flat sheets of metal in both back
and front. It looked like a first grader's drawing, all rectangles
Marblehead shrugged. "The engine works. I re-fitted
it to run electrical. She may look old and sad, but she runs."
He took a cord and plugged it into the car's trunk,
then trailed the line to an outlet just inside the garage.
"How far you goin'?"
"About 120 miles."
"Four hours of juice should get you."
"We need to sleep."
Marblehead gestured. "You can sleep in the car. I
got no room for anyone in my house except for Richie."
I put Athena in the back and I slept behind the wheel.
With the first streaks of red in the sky, Marblehead woke
me up, handed me a thermos with coffee and four Army ration meals.
"Why are you being so nice?"
"Herb said so."
"Here, take this." I pulled the last gun out
of my pocket and handed it to Marblehead.
He laughed hoarsely. "You know how many of these I
got? Keep it for yourself, son. You might need it."
He unplugged the cord and pointed at me. I pressed a button
on the dashboard and the engine vibrated to life.
Marblehead didn't wait for us to go before turning
to go into his shack. With the brake on, I took Athena out of
the back and buckled her in the front passenger seat.
I pointed the car out of the yard and onto an abandoned
parkway. The car silently marched north. I gave Athena an Army
meal. She grabbed it and shoved the ration into her mouth.
A half-hour later, at the north city line, a cop in a car
pulled me over. The gun in my pocket felt hot and uncomfortable.
If he asked for my license, the game would be up.
The police man looked in on us. Sweat braided his eyebrows.
I was as polite as I could be.
"Where you headed?"
"My daughter and I are going to the mountains."
He examined the inside of the car, saw the Army rations.
"We don't get too many cars here these days."
"I know, officer. We're very fortunate to have
He asked to take a look at the registration. I handed it
to him from the glove box. He studied the card for several minutes,
then handed it back to me.
"Your vehicle is electric, so you're legal as
far as the carbon law is concerned. But your car looks kind of
strange. It doesn't look like it's going to make it."
"We're certainly going to try."
"Seems like a lot of effort. Why not just stay in
"We're trying to find a cool place."
The cop, leaning on my window, laughed.
"Good luck with that!"
He waved us off. Trying desperately not to sigh with relief,
I restarted the box and we slowly ate up the asphalt. Athena looked
When we had passed through the next county, I asked her,
trying to sound casual, "You ever find out what happened
to your mother?"
Athena just looked at me, teared up, and shook her head
no. I thought she might have a tantrum and I steeled myself for
it. But nothing came. I felt the absence of my wife with that
terrible ache you get when you know you're alone, but decided
this was not the time to mourn. My daughter and I stared at the
The hills north of the city were treeless. It was like
that for three counties. Then, the hills became mountains and
trees started popping up along the road. The mountains, short
by Western U.S. standards, still held a kind of majesty for me.
They spoke of ancient glaciers and rock, golden eagles and black
bears, and trees, millions of trees.
It was still morning when we found the narrow road up to
the cabin. The car found the hill very challenging. Even when
flooring the pedal for more juice, the box seemed to give up very
little. I put the stick into second gear and got a little more
The road is full of curves and switchbacks. It rides over
a stream that comes from the top of the mountain. I was glad to
see the water still plunging in fierce rushes.
The last third of the hill the road becomes a straight
steep grade, about 40 degrees, and turns from asphalt to dirt
and rock. That's where the car simply gave up. We started
to slide backward. Even though it was against the law, and my
inclination, at that moment I prayed for the box to be a huge
truck, with thick, solid wheels and buckets of gasoline behind
I braked the car, turned off the motor and we sat there
for a few minutes. Athena looked at me with what I took to be
doubt. We were about 500 yards from the house, short enough to
walk. But I couldn't leave the car in the middle of the road.
So I started the box again. I pushed the electricity pedal
to the floor and released the brake. We shot up suddenly. Athena
held her hand against the dashboard as we flew over the dirt and
We were going so fast we almost missed the turn-off. I
took it going at a crazy angle, and we came close to hitting a
big tree, slaking off its brown leaves. Unnerved, I got us on
the straightaway to the house and we glided toward it. The car
began to shake. I braked and turned off the engine.
Athena didn't wait for me to unbuckle her. She slipped
off the seat belt, and pushed open the door lock and swung the
car door out. I shouted at her to wait, but the child was already
running through the leaves for the porch.
I said to my missing wife, as if she we were walking right
next to me, "I got her home, Mira, I got her home."