The Carbon Police Are Coming For You
by Michael Gold
forum: The Carbon Police Are Coming For You
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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The Carbon Police Are Coming For You


        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 walls.

        "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 carbon police.

        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 ago.

        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 patrols.

        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 van.

        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.


        "Tremont Byrne."

        "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 around here.

        "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 a lesson.

        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."

        "Thank you."

        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 their guns.

        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 me.

        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 and sneakers.

        "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 labor."

        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 "carbon refugees."

        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 Meadow Park.

        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 and ankle.

        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 sparkled.

        "Go to hell, carbon scum. Give me your pants." I obeyed.

        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 mosquitoes.

        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 me.

        "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 gas stations."

        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 guy.

        "What about you?"

        "I got 15 years."

        The pale guy looked impressed and frightened at the same time.

        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 camp."

        "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 lost."

        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 to escape?"

        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, Byrne."

        "Goodnight, Derek."

        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 crazier.

        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 triage—our 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, however loose.

        "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 it."

        "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 want to."

        "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 money."

        "Maybe we can get back upstate to my family's house."

        "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 place.

        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 for it?"

        "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.

        "Hi, Jimmy."

        "You can't leave, Mr. Byrne."

        "I'm sorry."

        "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 students—Ralphie, Jaime, Bobby and a few others.

        "I don't understand, Jimmy."

        Jimmy drew a pistol from his pants and pointed it at my chest.

        "Understand this, Mr. Byrne."

        "You've got to be kidding me."

        "Jimmy, put the gun down," Bobby said. Jimmy didn't listen.

        "Mr. Byrne, it's against the law to leave the camp."

        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 of them.

        "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 their tee-shirts.

        "You better walk back inside, Mr. Byrne," Bobby said.

        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. It's illegal."

        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.

        "Ow! Athena!"

        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.

       "This 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 again."

        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 getting out?"

        The room got quiet. "You want to get out. There's a price for that."

        "What's the price?"

        "What have you got?"

        "Not much."

        "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 your name?"


        "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," I said.

        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."

        "Stop talking."

        "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 like ghosts."

        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 friction.

        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 grateful.

        "There's something over to the side," Herb said. A small red dot carved out the only light we could see in the blackness.

        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 much trouble."

        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 stadium.

        "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 at Herb.

        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 belt studs.

        "This door isn't gonna move," was all I could say.

        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 and 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 yet used.

        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 of me.

        "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 me.

        "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 eye.


        "It's nothing, Tree. I was doing an electrical retrofit of an engine and there was a spark. I had my face right in it."

        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 so sorry."

        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 other mentally.

        I walked back to the other side of the compound under the guard of my police kids, the rain gathering around us in small pools.

        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 my head.

        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 respond.

        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 fabric.

        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 to sag.

        "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 lights out.

        "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 to me.

        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 recycled—glass, 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 on us.

        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 vomiting heat.

        "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 running too.

        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 my direction.

        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 my own.

        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 old.

        He started to speak. I cut him off. "I'm looking for my daughter."

        "Carbon scum."

        "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 my daughter."

        "Carbon scum."

        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."

        "Carbon scum."

        "There's a fire behind you that's eating everything. I am trying to find my daughter."

        "Carbon scum."

        "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, 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 her.

        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 my side.

        "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 tee-shirt.

        I stood up and said, "Now, you little maniacs, go and play."

        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 hip bone.

        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 to eat."

        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?"

        "My daughter."

        "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?" I asked.

        "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 to eat."

        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."

        "Oh, Herb."

        "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 on this."

        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 and squares.

        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.

        "Hello, officer."

        "Hello, sir."

        "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 one."

        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 the city?"

        "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 at me.

        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 road.

        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 traction.

        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 her.

        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 the rock.

        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."






copyright 2007 Michael Gold.

Michael Gold:

I live in Queens, NY, with my wife and baby daughter. I have worked as a public relations writer for industrial and technology companies, a reporter for small-town newspapers, and a freelance writer. My last published piece was "Mars on the Discount Plan," on Silverthought. I read too many comics. Major influences include Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Miller and Kilgore Trout.

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