THE REMOVAL MAN

This was once an entry in a writing competition. Post-apocalyptic stuff.

Dust and bright, unrelenting light. Burning sky. Confusion. Hoarse voices shouting. Panic and lost souls milling around.

Time to go. But there is so much to leave behind.

Going through the buildings, seeing familiar yet empty staircases. Finding frantic people gathering their last possessions. Rediscovering places and rooms long remembered. How it will hurt to leave this place. It is the same, but somehow it is not.

Like a hammer on my heart, I miss everyone dear to me. But they are already gone. I tend to forget that at moments like this. I have an awful yearning for one last look. A final embrace. Why did they have to go? Why not me? Who chooses? Who really dares to choose? What right do they have?

Early this morning I discovered that I was one of the chosen. It seems random. Why take strangers who have no connection to each other? Why not take all those who had binding relationships? Connections.

I realise that I am the only family I have. Well, at least I can greet a face that I know in the bathroom mirror.

In a corner by the stairs, as the last goods are taken down to the waiting vehicles, I find the dog. I know about him, of course. Who didn’t? The pampered, beloved pet of the man once in charge of this place. Too bad that he had such abundantly selfish bones in his body he never thought of his dog. Now the man has gone away because he was not one of the chosen. The dog whines, his bravado and fighting stance reduced to this pathetic heap of bewildered, shuddering flesh.

I bend without thinking to pat the animal. For a second, that old flash of belligerence and menace glints in the depths of his red-tinged eyes. My reactions are dulled by my exhausted state, and I don’t pull back. My hand makes contact and the dog relaxes his body while he pushes his head against my fingers, begging for some sort of assurance. I stand and walk away. He follows. I wonder for a moment why, but I will chance it – I question if they allow him onto the departing transport.

As I walk, no one pays any attention to me. I wasn’t really noticeable in their little worlds. I wasn’t one of the workers, but rather one of the creators, and it has given me an odd invisibility – a division. Those who think, and those who do. There are always more who do and fewer of those who think. Those-Who-Decide have paid heed to the universal law of the Governing Council. I am a thinker amongst an army of doers.

The last boarding calls echo along the empty corridors. I speed up, not wanting to miss my connection. As much as it hurts I will not destroy this chance. I will lose even more if I stay. There is a faint clicking of claws on the tiles behind me as the dog follows. He has found someone to love for a moment, even if that moment is fleeting.

Across one of the vast empty assembly halls I see a familiar shape. The kind of familiarity that is almost lost in the back of your mind, but which returns in unbidden moments, much like a lift of a shoulder activates a long-buried memory. And this memory surely is old. One from my youth.

Who is it? The thought nags like a stubborn headache. Who can it be? Where do I know that posture? I look again. Gone. I want to turn back and shout, “Who are you? Where did you come from?” but I know my time is running out fast. I race for the stairs and leap down, two at a time, my backpack banging against my hips.

Out in the street, there are marshals yelling and gesturing as they see my orange transportation sticker, and I pound along the pavement, the dog a panting wraith of white-furred muscle following on my heels. I think he knows it is also his last chance. I throw myself onto the last truck and sit down, feet dangling over the back. The dog leaps too and as he lands the people gathered on the truck shrink in fear. It seems his reputation precedes him. I pull him closer and he settles with reluctance, his head on my lap. The truck groans into life. We are on the move.

•••

Later, I stand at the window and look down at the last few mechanics fiddling about below. Their protective suits and oversized headgear are a sharp reminder of our collective fate. Dust and debris blowing around them in random eddies.

Still, I think about why I am here, worrying at the idea like a rat at a carcass. Behind me on the scratched and dented steel floor the dog snores in a deep slumber. I can feel the various engines of the craft beginning to thunder, warming up. And I think how I’d always pictured departures like this as such sterile, beautiful, clean affairs. Perfect music, perfect people, and perfect plot, perfect setting. Not this horrendous scramble for survival. Oh, the ache I feel inside! It hurts so much, it hurts like a lost a limb. Precious people are gone forever. Once again I want to scream and shout, “Who chooses?”

Out of the corner of my eyes, I see someone moving some baggage that blocks an aisle in the middle of the craft. Again, that gut-wrenching sensation of a familiar profile. This memory is starting to hurt almost as much as my feeling of loss. The dog behind me whines and twitches, dreaming. Maybe he is picking up on my distress? I lean my grubby forehead against the glass. It leaves a sweaty mark but it cools me, and I can just make out my reflection against the backdrop of the dusty landscape I am about to leave.

A commotion behind interrupts my sorrow. Two of the workers dispute their rights to a space in the racks of bunks. The journey is going to be very long, it is better that hierarchies and power struggles manifest now. Only the bravest and loudest get the best spots.

I hear footsteps scuffing towards where I am standing. “It is you.” I freeze. Hold my breath. “I thought it was, but it has been so many years since I saw you.” I don’t dare turn to look at him. “Funny, back then I always thought you were so ugly. Bloody ugly.” I can feel my lungs ache as I wait, immobile. I stare at the glass, but I can still see him reflected behind me. A vague outline of a once-white t-shirt and low-slung jeans. Dusty boots. About as untidy and messed-up as I am. But still, it is him, making me fear, hate, and love at the same time. Even after so long.

I can’t… I can’t… I can’t look at his eyes. I can’t… Eyes that remind me of glacial ice. Eyes that cut through me. Eyes that I once hungered to notice me. I know it will hurt as much now as back then when he said all those agonising things. I hear the echoes in my mind. “Stupid kid! Child! Baby! Does your mom know you are out? Does the zoo?” followed by gales of laughter as his assembled acolytes erupted in sycophantic mirth. While I stared at my shoes and wished for the ground to open up and swallow me – hopefully swallowing my tormentors too and injuring them fatally in the process. How painful to yearn from afar, and yet to know that they think you are less than a worm in a jar.

Still, I cannot look at his eyes. I let my breath out just as the engines begin their final take-off whine. The craft shudders and I feel my legs pushed down hard to the floor. The dog lifts his head, growls at my companion, and then collapses again in an exhausted sleep.

“Sit down, please, it will be much safer. I can strap your belt for you,” says my one-time tormentor. I shake my head in denial. He says, “OK, your choice. I will just stand here and watch too.” I chance a look out the corner of my eye. He’s still there, fingers hooked on his jeans pockets.

I look down at myself. Such a change from the chubby unformed child I was the last time I saw him. Although as I now appear I must be quite a shock. Resembling a discarded rag doll, wearing a too-small shirt and grimy fatigue pants finished off with clumpy borrowed boots. Never mind that my brain is now wired to explode.

“My mom always had one of those hymns for times like this,” he says. I am jolted. Who dares talk religion these days? My dismay communicates to him because he says, “I will never forget the words. You wanna hear?”

I nod, silently.

” ‘Oh God, I rock and ages pass’ ” he proclaims. And I feel the bubble welling up in me as his misquoted words clang like giant hammers on a devilish anvil. My shoulders heave as hysterical laughter fizzes and crackles in my chest and erupts in my throat. I slump down, leaning against the window ledge, arms crossed over my stomach with tears pouring down my face. He bends low and looks me in the face. “What? What did I say? Is that outlawed still? I didn’t know! Tell me! Come on! Tell me! NOW!”

How do I explain that his misquoted lines could quite possibly become a new mantra for my as-yet undiscovered future? And then I look up and am lost. I did the wrong thing. I looked in those eyes. They are a steel trap. Always were.

Suddenly I leap up to avoid… what? Myself? Him? My feelings? Or, most likely, not to let him see that I still carry the old wounds. He stands with me looking out, almost shoulder to shoulder.

While I was having my little fit, we had taken off. Far below, the dusty dried-out Earth recedes. Many times I had dreamt of travelling like this, watched the TV shots, envied the travellers. Now my wish has been granted.

But what wish do I really mean? That I am standing next to the one person who has lived inside my head all my life? Or that I am inside a metal pod, soaring upwards at a startling speed, soon to leave Earth’s sullied atmosphere and journey as the chosen ones to start afresh on a newly-populated world?

I look down at the ledge that my hands rest on. Aluminium against the inner glass, and similar to so many places I have been, none too clean. Dust and dead flies. Spacecraft are maintained much like any other work vehicle, it seems.

For the first time I speak, “What are you doing here?” It comes out as a criticism, as if he’s not worthy of being chosen.

“Somebody has to move all this,” he says, gesturing to the piles of cargo behind us, “I am a removal man.”

“Oh,” I say, tongue-tied.

I look down again at my hands, fingers outspread on the windowsill. Alongside me, he leans forward and puts his hands on the sill too. Two pairs of hands. His show the scars of what he does, and mine show the stains of what I create.

And then he moves closer so that his shoulder touches mine. Not roughly, but not tentatively either. Just a feeling of solid comfort. He reaches over and covers my hand with his. So warm and solid. I feel the icy block in my chest crack with a rush. I feel my cloak of invulnerability and isolation fade away.

“I’m with you, you know,” he says. “Why don’t we stick together? I’ll be by your side all the way.”

THE END.

Copyright © June 2003 FIONA TIPPING.

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