Plague City – excerpt

-1-

His city rocked with explosions in the waking hours of the morning. Mayor Henry Coal watched unstirred from his office window as each burst of red flame illuminating the low hanging winter clouds left a pillar of black smoke rising in evidence. Coal counted each one―including the rumbles of the bursts his vantage would not allow him to observe.

It was only yesterday he had requested the Purging. Mama Ruth works fast. She always did. Mama Ruthless.

Coal tugged and adjusted the gray wool scarf wrapped around his face, ensuring his mouth and nose remained securely covered. Every blast he counted, nine so far. Now ten. There were a dozen to be expected. Each one struck him as a release of fresh disease to the air. Though the explosions, now eleven of them, had been safely away from his office, farther across the city where the outliers lived―closer to the wall and thus the Plague―an instinctive voice deep down cautioned him: cover up.

The twelfth and final explosion.

Now for the panic. The first act. Coal knew each of the acts well; they would play out in sequence as they always did.

First was worry for the wall. Its existence was paramount. The wall encompassing the city, what fraction they’d managed to spare now more than two-hundred years ago, was what kept the decimated population feeling safe. It’s what kept out the Plague. Yet Coal knew better. There was no keeping it out. There was only trying to control it. His job.

Once the wall was found unharmed, there would be the concerted effort to pin blame. Too often had the city awakened to blasts of unnerving destruction these months of late. Homes, businesses, even a school―destroyed. Rumors would spread through the city almost as the disease itself. It was anarchists. Religious fanatics. The mob. Take your pick. Of course, some rumors would land upon Coal himself―his rise to mayorship had been suspicious enough.

That was the only reason the Purgings worked: There were so many to blame.

Now wait.

His office staff would soon rush through the door reporting what little they knew, throwing about wild speculation as to the culprit. That too, Coal had learned, was part of the process of the Purgings.

Appear upset. Demand answers. Reveal nothing.

Only Coal knew the truth. Coal, and Mama Ruth.

-2-

As evening settled upon the city, his walk home was of a hasty gait, almost a jog, taking careful measures not to make a single unnecessary step that would extend his journey longer than need be. He knew the exact shortest route home, exactly which side of the streets to walk on, how best to avoid the lamplighters seeing to their nightly task, and the alleyways to cut through to bypass the street vendors who would undoubtedly plea for his custom. In fact, he even knew the exact number of steps it would take for him to do it, if done properly―a goal he strived to meet daily. Six hundred and ninety-four.

Every dozen steps he took care to pull on his scarf, afraid his hurried pace might jostle it loose from its place just below the bridge of his nose, exposing his lungs to unfiltered air. He always walked fastest on the day of a Purging.

Streets emptied for days when the Purgings first began. Coal relished every one of them―how easy it was to make the long walk to and from his office on those destitute days. But soon the city grew bold having learned that surviving the morning was as much as surviving the day, and so these days his passing through the city met without break from the populace.

Standing at the stoop of his front door, a two-story home inhabited by only he and his wife, a veritable mansion when compared to the cramped shared living spaces of the old downtown office buildings, he worked to steady his exhausted breathing. It was the shortcoming of his impetuous pace. An extra breath meant only an extra chance to breathe the microscopic toxin that would spell his undoing.

Reaching into his pocket, he produced a ring of three keys: one for home, one for the mayor’s office, and a singular bronze key he’d uncovered a week after inheriting that office. Locked away in a safe hidden behind a painting of a city skyline that no longer existed quite the same, the key had with it a map, pinpointing the door to which it belonged. The key to the citya way out. So it was written upon the map. Coal had yet to use it, but kept it close for if the time ever came―a precaution his predecessor had not shared.

His fingers stuffed inside black leather gloves fumbled clumsily to grab the right key, but he would not dare remove the gloves to ease the task―not until he was safely inside. Not a second sooner.

Coal opened the door barely enough to slip inside and between the two cloth curtains nailed on all sides of the door frame. He removed his gloves, stuffed them inside his coat pockets, and bathed his hands in the washing basin sitting on an antique phone stand in the entryway, scouring them with lye soap.

He hung his coat on a rack beside the front door, shed his shoes on the first floor landing, and adjusted his scarf, which had invariably loosened its hug around his head from the turmoil. His nightly ritual.

At last, Coal made for the living room, the static-crackled voice speaking over the radio carrying into the hall as he approached. He stood silent in the doorway, listening for what news came of the Purging, ensuring his message was delivered as given. The radio signal grew weak and the voice was overcome with white noise.

Coal looked on as Eve sat on the floor in front of the radio, an old repaired Crosley, her head wrapped in a blue scarf with white flowers, leaning her ear closer to the speaker in an effort to hear the cold voice amongst the static. He need not see her face to know how the news of the Purgings affected her. Her slouch, her hung head, her nervous rocking said it all.

“More bombings,” she said without turning, aware of Coal’s presence in the room.

“I know,” said Coal. “Uprisings.”

The voice over the radio was barely audible when it was spoken, but then Coal didn’t need to hear it, he had written the words himself. In the back of his mind Coal wondered if Eve ever suspected him as the one to blame. She was smart, and knew him better than anyone. Was it really possible to hide such things from her―things terrible in her eyes, necessary in his own? He once thought so. Now he wasn’t so sure.

Eve was gentler than he in all concerns, above all the Plague. Caring. Understanding. She hated the disease just as much, but only for its ruinous toll. It was the disease that tore apart families, destroyed cities, threatened the very existence of mankind. Where she differed from Coal was in her compassion for those afflicted. It hadn’t always been that way for Coal, but of late it was a compassion he no longer shared. Coal himself could not say for certain when his mindset altered, or what had brought it about. Perhaps, he thought, it was when he fell in love, married, had someone to live for and protect, maybe that had been the tilting factor of his mercy’s balance. It seemed a reasonable excuse as any. What he knew for certain was this: He felt only despise for those who allowed themselves to fall to such ruin. It was, in his mind, the highest betrayal to their fellow man. The disease could be avoided if only the proper care was taken. Coal knew this with unfaltering certainty. It was a fact. And yet the Plague thrived upon his city.

Coal could not protect the city from its own degenerative nature, but he could protect Eve.

Exiles did not work. Forcing out beyond the wall those who were diseased did not serve to destroy it. Extreme measures had to be taken to preserve the one whom he loved most. Yet these ideas, these beliefs, remained unspoken to the very soul he desired to protect. She would not understand.

Coal took a seat on the couch, patting the cushion beside him. “Come off the floor, dear. It’s too cold down there,” he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulder as she sunk into the cushion and pressed against his chest. Coal pulled the purple knitted blanket from the back of the couch and enveloped the both of them in it.

Electricity for heat and light was expensive, even for the mayor. It was too easy to burn through the month’s allotment, and was better saved for the things that mattered―things like the radio. Blankets and candles, these things were cheap.

“Belle’s Revolution,” said Coal, repeating what lie he’d fed his own staff. It was easy enough to blame such an extreme group of radicals. Anarchists. Where they believed the government stuck its nose too deep in places it did not belong, Coal was of an opposing opinion. But the undeniable incitation of their acrimony, the very reason they existed, could be traced with ease to one government mandated institution. “They haven’t settled since the last Draft,” said Coal.

“It is cruel isn’t it, Henry? Families torn apart to serve the city. Forced labor. Imagine if it were one of us sent away to work the farms, or worse, beyond the wall for supplies.” A chill ran down Eve’s spine from the thought of it. “I just couldn’t bear it.”

Coal gathered the notion this was more of a test on the part of his wife, feeling out whether he was capable of sharing the same compassions, more so than confirmation of her own beliefs. It was the way she looked at him. He could read her eyes, the sole portion of her pale visage left uncovered. Had he somehow changed to her, or was it his own creeping guilt he’d buried somewhere down deep for the countless Purgings that led him to believe this? The notion of having somehow changed was something he only ever felt when in her company.

“It’s the law. Everyone contributes,” said Coal. His response was flat, unsympathetic, and even he knew how cold it sounded. Coal took Eve’s hand gently. “You shouldn’t worry about such things. I promise you, our names will never be called.”

Eve gave his hand a soft squeeze. “You know that’s not my point.” She pressed tighter against him, shivering, two bodies sharing warmth. “Don’t you think there could be a better way?”

“It’s the way it’s always been―long since the first wall. If it didn’t work, it would have changed well before our time, trust me. You can’t just change things on a whim to appease an unruly few. Besides, there’s no such thing as a perfect way. There’s only surviving.”

Eve tilted her head so her chin rested on Coal’s shoulder, softly pressing into him. She stared into his eyes. “You’re the mayor now. You could fix things,” she said as if reminding, “―if you wanted to.”

“For what? There’ll always be uprisings―someone who disagrees. Always,” he said. “Trust me; there are bigger problems to worry about than labor.”

“Such as?”

Coal sighed; an unspoken understanding of that which troubled him most. “What else?”

“That’s what the wall is for,” said Eve, again as if reminding her husband of a fact he’d simply forgotten.

Coal wanted to tell her of the spreading disease―the need for more Purgings. He wanted to remind her: The wall could not keep out the Plague, only those who had it. So much had his own eyes seen since taking office six months ago that whatever agenda he had planned, whatever transformations he had hoped to instill within the city, were all but overcome. But she did not see the city the way he did, and Coal refused to be the one to open her eyes to the doomed world he now beheld. Eve still saw hope. For Coal the world was already lost―his job, as he saw it, to scrape more time, as much as he could for the fortunate few.

“Even if I could do away with the Drafts…there’s a process to―”

“So change it,” said Eve. Coal felt her squeeze tighter against him, now acutely aware of the exchange of heat radiating from her body into his own. A single bead of sweat formed in the crook of his left armpit and ran down the length of his side, leaving a trail for more to follow. “Rules can be changed,” she said, picking at a loose thread protruding from the belly of his shirt. “What does it matter how old they are, or who made them? It doesn’t make them right.”

Coal’s right leg bounced in agitation―anger even, sudden and overwhelming. There was no winning argument, nothing he could say or otherwise do to convince Eve that he knew best. She would dismiss everything out of hand until he caved.

More beads of sweat formed and ran down his side. His pulse quickened and his head throbbed. Coal suddenly felt trapped.

“Babe, are you all right?” Eve struggled to push herself free of his hold, her eyes wide in alarm. “You’re squeezing my shoulder!”

Coal looked to his right hand, the blanket clutched tightly in a fist he did not recall making. He released it at once and threw the blanket to the floor. The relief of a cold rush of air washed over him in its wake.

“I’m sorry!” he blurted.

“No,” said Eve, “it’s my fault. There’s enough worries on your mind without me piling on top of them.” She sat on his lap and wrapped her arms around the back of his neck. “I know you’re trying. Progress takes time. It always does for the things that matter most.” She tugged down on Coal’s scarf, just enough to reveal his lips, did the same to her own and kissed him.

Eve always managed to keep Coal on his toes, even before he was mayor. Just the same, nobody could bring peace to his mind the way she did. They’d had this conversation many times over, but never had Coal reacted so. He couldn’t explain it. Was the stress truly getting to him? Or was it guilt? He didn’t think so. That is, in truth, Coal had no qualms whatsoever about the Purgings―especially when he thought of Eve. The Purgings were for her. He could never tell her that.

******

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