By John White
The streets were deeply illuminated; an ethereal trail of silver gleamed from the surface like blood from skinned knees. The stars scratched into its concrete skin like paint scratched off of metal, uncovering a luminous sheath. Its metallic frame brightened my footsteps, each step resting in its own place for a moment and then fading into the eternity of night.
I staggered into the butcher’s shop alone, darting my eyes along the back of the alleyway to make sure nobody was there. I was the only nobody there. Smoke gently curled from the corners of my mouth as I exhaled, and then took a last puff of tobacco-flavored carbon before the real heavy work started.
I didn’t want to enter that room; I dreaded every moment I was in there. However, I told myself that this was why the oligarchy needed someone to take the burden of this work.
Lasting civilizations are built off the backs of the forgotten: the peasants who harvested beige fields of wheat and the slaves who forged the ghostly white walls of the Colosseum. It is through the blood and sweat of loyal insignificants that governments and their people pass on through history.
I just didn’t know how much more blood and sweat I could give.
I passed back into Ol’ Red’s Butcher Shop.
“Closing time,” I muttered. Ol’ Red looked up from the t-bone he was feverishly trimming. He quickly looked to the clock and then back into my eyes. He knew exactly what I meant. In one fluid motion, he dropped the meat and grabbed his coat. To the world, I was nobody — to him, nobody was there.
Ol’ Red nodded his head and stepped into the radiant streets. I stood alone, preparing myself for what I had to do and rubbing my jaw in contemplation.
In minutes, I received the message over the telecommunicator.
“It’s still fresh, get it done.”
In my own haunting silence, I turned off the lights, leaving the beam of light coming from the basement to cast a haunting path before me. I staggered into the ghostly light, breathing more rapidly, to the rhythm of my heart.
I had always believed in this city, though you may think it was stupid to do so. I always knew that throughout the stones that echo one’s footsteps, the high-pitched laughter of the orphans and even the steam that rises from the sweltering factories, there was always a tender heart beating. It was a heart that was truly alive, though hidden deep beneath the bustling city streets.
Like a younger brother, it was fragile yet bold and eager yet defenseless, ready to collapse into the arms of his guardian brother in hot tears. It was more human than the people who lived off its back.
Yet, I had never known how to give it what it wanted. What made it breathe beneath the drone of its people? How did we keep it alive, even while the people who inhabited it seemed to scald it with their waste?
As a child, I had lived as a nobody on these streets, scarred from the First War in the Sky. My life had been strewn across the alleyways like worn rags. I had existed surrounded only by depravity. When approached by the oligarchy, I had known that this was my opportunity to move beyond my troubles and work for the government to keep this city breathing. I just hadn’t imagined it being like this. No, not like this.
The stench was really the first thing that hit you. Its heavy odor clung to the walls in snaking tendrils of scent, bleeding through the skin. In the center, surrounded by white walls, lay the body.
I stood over the body, looking at the painted fingernails. They were bright red, matching her pea coat, and I wondered whether she had thought of that. One of the worst things about this job was that I was always reminded of the person each one had been. This one’s skin was as pale as the walls, and her brown hair gently trickled down to her shoulders. I sighed.
“Don’t breathe,” I thought. “Never breathe.” I grabbed the vial of chemicals that would turn her into plant food, and, in self-contained horror, I prepared for the procedure.
Not like this … not like this.
The city’s heart beat rhythmically like a soft drum, brimming through the cracks in its unearthly shine.