Dick still can’t believe it: he’s backed against the concrete wall with all these other bodies crushed in around him and the guy next to him is sobbing uncontrollably but in a kind of whiny way that makes Dick want to clock him if he could get his hands free to do it and there’s this little trickle of blood behind his ear just where he can’t get at it and Jane’s wherever they’re holding the women and kids but they won’t tell him where that is and across the big dark basement storeroom all the phones they confiscated are ring-toning like mad like a muzak machine had a nervous breakdown or something and Dick remembers that he meant to update his message and if his boss is calling for him he’ll probably think Dick stayed in Maui when he’s supposed to be finishing up that presentation for the Sunday Working Breakfast tomorrow and his boss will have his balls… Then Dick stops, thinks: What the fuck am I thinking? Because this can’t be real, he’s not here, none of it is happening.
What’s more, his day started out so nice.
Because the Good Life Holistic Emporium where he and Jane buy their groceries had this Thanks-to-Our-Community fiesta-type-thing in the parking lot today that they’ve been doing for like the last four-five years and Dick decided they should check it out because the kids were now at the age where they just got too antsy after six hours of gaming, ‘toons, Golden Age reruns, all that. (At least he and Jane still had that much time to fool around a little, download the paper, make some espresso, and maybe he can watch some of the game on his mini in bed…) So when they’d finished their scheduled frolic and shower-massage (which if the sad truth be told, those jets seemed to do more for him these days than the dependable spousal pussy) and got the kids some brunch which they all ate in front of the TV—sorry, Home Theater, it’s a 3D-HD Gigascreen; he just had it put in—the Anime Channel, which has those movies with the goofy monsters and completely incomprehensible plots that he actually kind of likes—anyway Dick decided to pack everybody into what his mother snidely calls the “Personal Assault Vehicle,” although she knows perfectly well that with the way everyone drives these days, street armor is not an optional feature… so he mobilized them all and they headed down to the Good Life where he and Jane are loyal customers because the food there is certified something-or-other but mainly the bakery has these lemon soufflé bars that totally float Dick’s boat while Jane loves the peanut fondue scones and the kids have discovered peppermint biscotti and now they can’t get enough of it.
Not to mention that the Good Life also has only young, sexy, hip-looking people working there, apparently there is even some kind of employee beauty standard, which created a stir initially when some homely folks who needed the work put up a stink about discrimination, but it never went anywhere. Homely people don’t come across that well on 3DHD and from a marketing standpoint (that’s Dick’s job, he’s in marketing) having such a sexy and fun-looking staff was a real edge for TGL anyway. And all their friends shop there too although if Dick had to be honest he wouldn’t care if the guy who served him looked like Quasimodo as long as they kept making those lemon bars, but whatever.
The only problem, really, is getting to the store because it’s in the Warehouse District which is pretty desolate and surrounded by these no-go areas they call “drive-thrus” or “safari parks” so Dick used to make it a live-action game of sorts for the kids but then he got the PAV its own 3DHD so he could just dial up a flick and they didn’t even notice what was happening on the streets outside. He once thought the “problem areas” had all moved to the suburbs and that’s why he put 500K up front (which it doesn’t bear looking too closely at how he got but let’s just say begging, borrowing, and stealing were all involved) on a condo in the Hills where everything’s still pretty copasetic and they finally got their street gated after hassling with the do-nothing city bureaucracy for five years for godssake! But no matter how much the Neighborhood Associations tried they never could shift all those increasingly scary people out of the Lowlands and in fact it was starting to seem like there were actually more of them in recent years…
So anyway to get to the Good Life he has to drive through this wasteland area, like an asteroid belt or something where everything is broken up and in chunks and he has to drive quick and not get stopped at too many lights or he might get one of those chunks coming in through his windshield (but at least his “PAV” has all tinted reinforced shatter-proof windows—so nuts to you, Mom!)
Dick feels the cement wall digging pits in his back now and tries to shift his body a little. He thinks: I wonder what’s happening to my car? They took all the keys, but then how will they ever know which keys for which car? Because some other Einstein came through and took all their wallets, but that was after. Dick doesn’t think his captors really know what they’re doing—how could they? Till a few hours ago they were just a bunch of beat-up lowlifes hanging around the edges of the Good Life parking lot. He’d noticed them on earlier trips of course, but only to think they all looked sickly in a paint-box sort of way: red eyes, yellow finger tips, purple bruises on their arms…
So why was all this still going on when it shouldn’t be happening in the first place? Why weren’t they being rescued already? At least Mr. Whimper beside him finally dried up when this enormous terrifying dreadlocked guy who seems to be the one figuring it all out play by play as it were came in and showed off a huge roll of duct tape and said: Anybody who makes any sound louder than a whisper gets his face duct-taped like his hands and feet and we ain’t gonna be too careful about whether he can breathe or not, so shut the FUCK up!! and they all did, including Whimper.
The blood on the back of Dick’s neck seems to be drying up too – it was just a sideswipe from this gal with matted hair, a broken nose, and a bottle of carrot-ginger soda in her hand, one of the hench-people who lined them up to be frog-marched down into this basement hole. Why she picked on him he has no idea, he was just craning his neck to try to see where they were going, and she clipped him with the bottle! Now he thinks of it, he bets they’ve all been in the military; she looked just like that old gal, the one in the prison scandal photos from the early Mid-East Wars. Her eyes were glazed that way and she looked like she’d been oxygen-starved at birth or something. These kids who go into the military nowadays seem to come back completely fucking bonkers, and even if they’re mostly from those meat-packing or reactor towns in the flyover states, somehow they end up on his streets.
Well, the festival was nice: all those cute store clerks write songs or do videos or make artsy-craftsy things apparently so on their day off they put them on show in these events that TGL puts on. There was a stage and a sound system in the parking lot, a few rickety booths with face painting or balloon animals for the kids and jewelry or knickknacks for sale and digi-movies or books of weird poetry those staff people had made god help ‘em, and the Good Life just took a little cut of whatever they sold. And the store stayed open too so you could go in and buy your lunch for 10% off and then come back out and listen to the staff perform their retro-hop, post-funk or whatever on the stage.
So Dick parked in the back lot and when they all got out of the car he didn’t really notice anything unusual—just the same grubby people that always tried to wash your windows or sell you a crumpled newspaper or hit you up for change were standing around mumbling to themselves on the fringes of the parking lot, and some of the beefier (but still hip-looking) staff were planted around the perimeter keeping an eye on them. Just business as usual in the Warehouse District.
Everybody he knows is totally against handouts and says don’t encourage them but Dick’s not like that, though of course he doesn’t ever say so publicly. He’s worked like a dog for everything he’s got (even with his Dad’s connections –because after all that only takes you so far!) And he’s in hock to the eyeballs just sending the kids to that fancy school they practically had to kill somebody to get into, and how does he even know they’re gonna end up with the fancy job that all that fancy schooling was supposed to be for anyway?
But still he’s one of the lucky ones, he understands this, so he’ll help out a guy on the street now and then, a buck here, a buck there, and he always tries to be polite, even to the ones that stink like week-old trout. He never called the cops on anyone, not even this old (but still strong-looking) guy that started spitting and screaming at him about gas chambers one day when he just tried to step around him to get into his building. He and Jane have given real jobs to people too: house cleaning, babysitting, yard work, so forth. And with decent pay, not like those people who would nickel-and-dime their own grandmother if she didn’t have her immigration papers in order…
But Dick is really pissed off now. This is not how he should be treated. It’s damp down here; it’s starting to stink with all these scared, sweaty bodies crammed in, and where are his wife and kids?
Someone will have to come for them! It’s probably just too early for anybody to know anything is wrong. Everything happened so fast—and the total darkness is really disorienting.
There he was, just hanging out near the stage listening to some gal with ridiculous hair and haunting blue-green eyes sing a heartfelt song that sounded exactly like a retro folk-pop star whose name he can’t recall now from the oughts, but he could tell this gal thought she had totally invented the style and the feelings. The lyrics he didn’t understand at all because the sound system was crappy as it always is at these things and anyway the only really interesting aspect of her was those eyes that seemed to remind him of something and he kept staring at her and trying to remember what it was. A little fog had crept off the bay and hovered over the District giving everything this kind of dull bleached look and his daughter Lisette was getting her face painted with purple stars while Jane watched and Billy was smashing Pow-r-Balls from a spring-action canister of some kind into a billowy plastic wall with a bunch of other boys and Dick was just locked on the eyes of that hipster girl and that was all he saw.
So he doesn’t know exactly what happened next, how the whole thing came down. There might’ve been a scuffle at the back of the crowd; at some point he heard a weird shout like a kind of toneless howl that was clipped off at the end but he didn’t look around then, you never look around when something like that happens, he just figured maybe some street guy off his meds had been suppressed and hustled away by one of the beefeaters at the perimeter.
And after that things starting happening really fast, so he didn’t stop to think about that first shout. Suddenly there were dozens of ragged people shouldering their way through the crowd of colorful Good Lifers and then he did look around and saw that the parking lot was surrounded by what seemed like hundreds more and some of them had wrenched up No Parking signs or found planks or bricks somewhere and were waving them around in this very intimidating way and the beefeaters were nowhere in sight and neither were the cops, which was a bit strange because they generally prioritized these areas of town and used to be a presence at any outdoor events in the city, although their numbers had been reduced of late. There used to be helicopters over the Warehouse District all the time when he was growing up, and you never saw that now… But of course everybody kept saying the city was broke and since most of the neighborhoods like his had been hiring their own security for years— maybe policing-wise things had finally bottomed out without him even realizing.
But the shadow-people must have known a bunch of stuff he didn’t or they would never have done what they did. Dick first noticed Dreadlocks when he was looking around for Jane and the kids and saw him over to one side making directing motions: a group over here, do this, a group over there, do that…
Then they all moved in and started to round up the men. Guys that fought or argued were clipped hard; Dick saw a couple of them drop just like slaughterhouse steers in designer sweats. He was looking for a way through the crowd and couldn’t see his family anywhere and he was starting to panic.
Right then one of the hench-people who’d been standing next to Dreadlocks as he gave out marching orders, a blond kid with that sandpapery reddish skin that white street people always seemed to have, bounded up on the stage, grabbed the guitar from the blue-eyed hipster girl and started screaming something into the mic. The lousy sound system and the surrounding uproar made it hard to figure out what, but Dick thinks he heard good food! good food! repeated several times.
By now Dick could see the whole place was overrun with street people or shall we say poorer people of various kinds and some others mixed in too that he couldn’t tell where they came from exactly. Some looked like those suburban teens that troop into the city hunting for dope and hang around on street corners giving you resentful looks and spit polishing their high fashion platform boots. Dick figured they must actually have wanted to become street people in some screwy way and now was their big chance, because they were brutal, they seemed to be hustling the moms and the little kids into line with special ferocity as if they were taking out all their anger on their clueless families in those beige subdivisions at the end of the commuter lines. Dick didn’t dare go anywhere near them, and he couldn’t see his wife or kids in the group they were collecting, but then he was out of time anyway because he was grabbed by a couple of very big guys in raggedy nylon track suits and antique running shoes with eyelets but no laces and shoved into the men’s group and they started to line them up single file with their hands on the shoulders of the guy in front and anybody that tried to take his hands down got slapped hard.
And Dick thinks now that for sure all the shadow-people (except maybe the suburban kids) must have been in the military because even though he’d never been it just seemed like they knew how to do this because they’d already done it to a bunch of people somewhere in some war, a practice run as it were, and now they were bringing everything they’d learned on home.
Then a big group rushed the store just as his column was starting to move and he heard the plate-glass doors and windows crashing into splinters and he saw crates of fresh oranges and fat peaches and drums of peanut butter, cashew butter, almond butter and sesame butter being hauled out into the street, and shade-grown coffee and sixty different kinds of fruit juices and wheels of rennetless Emmenthaler and bags of basmati rice and shopping carts full of nine-grain bread and spinach tortillas and braided challah and onion chapattis and wheat berry bagels and his personal favorite potato garlic rosemary foccacia, while hundreds of wide-eyed kids and dark-skinned mothers lined up to receive the bounty that was pouring out of that store. And he was amazed that they weren’t rioting and tearing each other apart to get at the stuff which he had always assumed people just instinctually did when something like this happened.
And that’s when it occurred to him: maybe all of this had actually been foreseen somehow. Maybe even though nobody knew exactly when or how it would happen, they knew that it was going to happen and they had talked about it and they had made some sort of agreements with each other about it and though he couldn’t believe it and he’s sitting in the damp dark surrounded by terrified guys who are jonesing for their phones and afraid even to whisper much less groan too loud still not believing it – the idea that these people might have been thinking about this day and planning for it and figuring out how to be ready when it came was the biggest shock of all.
After that his keepers marched him around the back, to the warehouse, the basement of same which had first been cleared of anything that could possibly be useful, edible or comfortable and he was hustled into it after getting knocked on the noggin by that gal. Nobody said sweet ef-ay about what was going to happen to them but Dick supposes maybe there’s some kind of ransom deal being planned although he can’t imagine what terms they’re thinking about—after all they have no leverage! No guns, no weapons except some rusty pipes and broken up concrete. (And those natural-soda bottles of course!) Nowhere to retreat to, like, tactically, except their same crummy slums in the asteroid belt.
Sooner or later the cops will have to show up – or the National Guard maybe? – and rescue him. But that being the case, it’s strange that everybody who comes in to harangue them and push them around acts so cocky…
Unless this is happening all over the city right now.
Oh for godssake, thinks Dick: that’s really crazy. He would know somehow, wouldn’t he, if something like that had been about to happen, and it was that big? There would have been some sign of it coming, right? There would have been protests or street marches or riots or something, wouldn’t there? To indicate that these people were fed up? It simply doesn’t happen that people just get up and start taking things over, with no money and no weapons and no power and no nothing! All together, everywhere, all at once? Bullshit.
For a second he thinks he hears voices talking low, right outside the door. Then nothing again but the weird sound of scared Good Lifers sniffling in the dark and a more and more occasional sequence from Yesterday or Beethoven’s 9th or the John Williams Classic Movie Themes Medley or other popular ring-tones. It’s almost like they left that box of phones across the room to torture their captives: everyone’s desperate to pick up, to connect with whoever’s trying to find them, even if it’s only a telemarketer or a bill collector, and the fact that the phones are ringing at all – is it a good or a bad sign? Right now it could still mean life as usual is going on, people can call, people are just checking in, Are you having a good time, can you pick up some milk at the store, meet later for a drink? Or it could mean panic, wherethefuckareyou allhellisbreakingloose—the ring-tones don’t tell you, no one has yet thought to devise phones that indicate the degree of urgency in their callers by the sound of the ring. Would be a damn good idea, though, thinks Dick, sort of a sonic little-red-flag. And he wonders for a moment if anybody is working up an app.
Now this one guy just started shouting and trying to get everybody else to shout and sure enough their captors came rushing in and taped his face shut just like Dreadlocks said they would. What an idiot! Like thinking he was in a prison break movie or something. That’s not the way it works, Dick knows. You’ve got to look around for opportunities and see if there’s any way you can cut a deal with one of them, or else just sit tight and wait for somebody to rescue you. Just keep quiet and keep your head down, try not to stand out in any way. That’s how it works in real life.
Dick needs something else to think about, though, or he’ll go crazy sitting there in the dark. He can’t think about Jane and the kids—not because it’s painful wondering what’s happening to them, but because he literally can’t—he can’t seem to bring them to mind right now. They are just names he’s associated with. He tries to picture his little girl’s face and all he can see is something like an unfilled-in blank with blonde hair and purple stars on its cheeks. He has no idea how long he’s been here anymore. It feels like a lifetime already, like he had kids once and a nice condo in the hills but that was in some other world or some dream he had.
And what’s going to happen to his stuff? His keys, car, wallet, phone—will he ever get them back? He can’t think about that either. He’s having trouble remembering who he is without those things—all his data is in those things and he’s really disconnected without his data.
Who am I? he catches himself thinking.
He’s losing all these details; his mind is just not working right, it’s the pressure, of course. This is what that guy in that Advanced Opportunity-Identification Seminar his boss had him take called an “unclassifiable circumstance.”
Right now the one thing he can still see clearly out of the whole goddamn day is the eyes of that hipster girl. He knew he’d seen eyes like hers some other time in his life – when he was a kid, maybe – and they made a big impression on him. When was it? Who was she?
And then in a flash—some things really are just like the movies after all—it comes to him. He can see a face around those eyes and it isn’t the face of anyone he ever knew or a face that was real to him in, like, personal terms, but they say your memory doesn’t distinguish between real people and just pictures at a certain point as far as where the brain keeps the information (or something like that).
Anyway, it was a photograph, in a calendar of National Geographic’s “Greatest Hits” on his Dad’s study wall (right behind what his stepmom used to call “that end-of-the-rainforest desk of yours.”) Who knows which month it was, but at the time it seemed to Dick as if it was the only picture in the whole calendar and it stared out at him for the whole year.
It was a child; a girl, he thinks, but maybe a boy… That was part of what grabbed him, he wasn’t exactly sure—and the girl, or boy, was wearing the tribal garb of some mountain people, war refugees he remembers it said in the caption, from some dry, cold, distant place, one of those countries that later became the burial ground for a shitload of his country’s recruits, a war that dragged on and on and he’s not actually sure now that he thinks about it if it even ever ended.
And, the boy, or girl, had the most incredible eyes of a color that no Extreme Makeover (which Dick can’t stop himself from remembering has just become the longest running TV show ever) could possibly give any wannabe Hollywood starlet. They were incredibly blue: blue with maybe yellow and green tints in them – not trick photography, although the lighting was very nice, professional nature-shoot quality – and huge, the eyes, that is, but what really got him then and gets him again now as he recalls it was not so much their color or size but the expression in them, which was not exactly fear, anger, hostility, suspicion, defiance, sadness, hunger, pain, mourning, or loss but some combination of all of those and possibly more, indicating a kind of knowledge or understanding which, as it seemed to him then, and again now remembering, no child should ever have come to possess.
But just as all this comes back to Dick in an overwhelming rush and release of memory, the door bursts open and a swarm of angry shadow-people fills the dim space and someone is shouting: okayokayokay listen UP you motherfuckers!
And Dick has to shift every atom of his attention to all these people yelling at him in the dark because he’s got to find out if they know – and if they do know, if they’re ever going to tell him – exactly what on earth is going to happen now.