Gabriel lived in a makeshift. Makeshifts were housing units made out of old, abandoned buildings, factories, shopping malls, car dealerships, whatever happened to be available. His makeshift unit sat in the back of an old car factory. It was four times the size of Lillian’s old apartment, and had high ceilings and a balcony/loft where Gabriel slept. He parked his cab in it. But it had no heating. “It gets damn cold in the winter,” he said.
Makeshifts had a quasi-legal status. Technically they were illegal. But no one ever said anything. A Better usually owned the property, something that had been in the family for a long time and wasn’t worth anything anymore. There was no point in developing it into anything, because po’folks couldn’t afford whatever services or merchandise it would offer and Betters would never traveled to the flats, where abandoned buildings festered. Instead, the owner would let folks stay there for cheap, with the understanding that if anything broke, they had to fix it. If anything collapsed, they had to deal with it or leave. If anyone died, well, that’s the chance you take. “It’s a makeshift, what do you want?” a makeshift foreman would usually say.
A foreman in a makeshift kept out freeloaders and collected rent from legitimate tenants. For his troubles, he got to stay rent-free. He never fixed anything as a general rule, of course. Some makeshifts, though, did have sympathetic foremen who would help with some repairs, for a fee. This was usually the case if the foreman had a trade skill, like plumbing or electrical or something. Generally, though, makeshifts were considered very dangerous. Not only because the old, shoddy building could cave-in at any moment, but also because they were often the target of vandals.
Gabriel let Lillian, her mother, and Ángel sleep in the loft. He slept below on the futon sofa. In the morning, he made coffee and had dry cereal for them to eat. Lillian’s mother didn’t want to be there. She wanted to be dropped off at her own place, but Lillian wouldn’t hear of it. She was still too shaken up by the Harkness attack.
Ángel clutched to his one remaining book. He refused to let it go and read it over breakfast.
“You don’t have a television?” Lillian’s mother asked.
“No, ma’am. No TV. We don’t have cable here.”
“Humph. Guess that’s why they call it a make-shit.” That’s what folks that lived in proper apartments called makeshifts. And they called the residents make-shitters. Even among folks, there was a hierarchy.
“I have something more valuable than a TV,” Gabriel said.
He got up and went to a wall where some photos hung. He pressed against the wall and it slid opened. Behind the wall were shelves and shelves of books, from floor to high ceiling. There had to be at least a thousand of them.
“Well, well,” Lillian’s mother mocked. “A library. That’s mighty BS of you, isn’t it?”
Ángel saw all the books and thought he had gone to heaven. He went over to the wall at once, still clutching his lone book. Gabriel told him to choose whatever he wanted to read.
“Where did you get all of these?” Lillian asked.
“Here and there. All over. I used to have a license to drive Betters and sometimes they left their books in the cab. Some of them were here when I got here, just left scattered around. But most of them I got in my travels, scavenging.”
“How do you avoid the WaComms?” Lillian mother asked.
“I get to a place either just after the strike, like I did last night, or well after it, after the Committee did their thing. WaComms don’t take books, except maybe to use as toilet paper or fire fuel.”
“What value are books? You can’t sell ‘em. No one would buy ‘em. And I thought you said you scavenged stuff to sell to get money.”
“I do. But not the books. The books I take because, well, I like books. I like to read and learn things. They don’t teach you anything in school, at least nothing worth learning. Like the whole deal with the Harkness Angels. They don’t teach you that in school.”
“I refuse to believe that they send Harkness Angels after people for rubbing a HAA! That’s bull! I’ve been rubbing HAAs since I was a little girl and they never came after me.”
“Then you were lucky, ma’am. I didn’t used to believe it, too. And my parents would spend each evening before going to bed rubbing their HAA together. My dad rubbed one wing and my mother rubbed the other. They were so proud of their HAA. And then they got shot down, shot dead in their bed while they slept. They tore their place up.”
“I’m so sorry, Gabriel,” Lillian said. “When did this happen?”
“Many years now,” he sniffled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t get like this. But they were good people who never did anything to anyone. They just rubbed that damn thing every night. Nobody here has a Harkness. I told them about it. Now nobody has one.”
“I’m missing my TV show! Doesn’t anybody here have a TV that works?”
“They just hooked up a satellite TV in the next wing over. They have a TV in the common room over there.”
“That’s where you’ll find me, then.”
“Be careful, Mother.”
“Don’t worry, hon. I’m still packing.”
Gabriel served Lillian more coffee. Ángel busied himself with the books in Gabriel’s library.
“Has your son asked the questions yet?”
“He knows what the world is like, even though I don’t send him to school.”
“But has he asked?”
“No, he hasn’t.”
“Hmm. He seems the right age for it,” Gabriel said.
“I don’t think he has to ask. He just seems to know. Even before he could read, when he was just a little baby, he had this look on his face, like a blank stare, but it wasn’t vacant. His mind can see things that he doesn’t knows how to describe yet.”
Gabriel nodded. “An old soul. That’s what my uncle used to say about some folks. ‘He’s got an old soul. He knows the truth.’ Some just seem to. The rest of us ask the questions, and then get slapped down for it. Then we learn not to ask anymore. But you know, my poppa didn’t slap me down. When I asked, he just told me that I would figure it out one day. That’s all he would say. I didn’t get beat up until school. I asked the teacher in class. She scolded me for interrupting the lesson. And then after school is when the other kids beat me up. The only thing I learned in school was how to fight and how to shoot. We don’t learn about this world. We just learn how to survive in it. That’s why I have all the books. I figure in some of them must be the answers, and if I keep reading them, then I’ll figure it out and maybe tell everyone else. Like the Harkness. I told folks here what happened to my parents, and you know what?”
Lillian smiled slightly and shook her head.
“They said the same thing happened to relatives of theirs, or to friends. Some of them did. They said one day their apartments got shot up from something in the sky, and they knew it was the Harkness that did it. And they always said that their relatives used to rub their HAAs like crazy. I got a bunch of broken up HAAs, over there, see?”
He pointed to a small bookcase on the other side of the space, just behind his cab, filled with various parts of broken up HAAs.
“I call it my instillation. My parents old HAA is the bits on top.”
Lillian liked the way Gabriel’s voice sounded. It purred. She had never heard a man’s voice purr before. And she could talk to him, in a way that she had only previously been able to talk to herself.
She told him about how she used to work as a domestic for a Better, before she got pregnant. He listened very closely, and heard exactly what she wasn’t saying. He took her hand and nodded.
“You’re not the only one, you know.”
“I know. But I’m one of the few who did not give him up,” she whispered.
“That’s true. The stigma usually makes people give them up. Why didn’t you?”
“He’s my boy. I wasn’t going to give him to people who didn’t care whether he lived or died. The agencies are no fit place to raise children.”
“Most agency kids turn into WaComm members. That’s because they don’t half feed them, so they’ll eat anything, so the story goes.”
“Yes. I couldn’t abandon Ángel to that. In any case, Gabriel,” she whispered. “I know that one day my son will avenge me.” She nodded. “He’s been reading like that since he was two years old. He reads at a higher level than Betters twice he age. They used to send us the books, you know.”
“No! A Better sent you their books?”
She put her finger to her lips and nodded.
“But why?” he whispered.
“They did all sorts of things after they let me go. They sent me books. They sent money. They forgave some of my debt. I don’t know why.” She paused and sipped the last of her coffee. “The Betters I worked for have three children. Two sons and a daughter. One son lives somewhere in Europe. I never met him.”
“The other son is the heir apparent to the empire. The daughter was interesting. She used to like to talk to me about literature and other things. She was very nice to me.”
“I tried to get to Europe, to live. I wanted to live in Spain. I read about Spain in one of my books. It sounds beautiful, peaceful. Peaceful like the Good Old USA used to be, long ago. Well, I guess it’s still peaceful for The Betters, huh?”
Lillian felt the softness in his voice, just as she did in her old apartment when his presence startled her. His softness spoke over the rubble and terror left behind after the attack, via words, via his tender pit-marked face, aged by circumstance not years. That’s why she did not fear him. He was no threat.
“It was very kind of you to let us stay here last night.”
“It’s the least I could do. You can stay here as long as you want. Maybe we can find you another unit here. Then your boy can read the books as much as he wants.”
“How dangerous is it here?”
“It’s not too bad, as makeshifts go. You know. We have our problems, but we all really look out after each other. And we have a good guard patrol. We do alright.”
“Thank you, Gabriel.”
Lillian’s mother returned walking slowly, with a slight limp. Usually when she walked with a limp, it meant that she was upset about something and wanted to generate sympathy.
“What is it, Mother?” Lillian said, used to the routine.
“They hit me, too.”
“Who hit you?”
“They did,” she said, her usual bravado missing from her voice. She slumped into a chair at the table. “It was on the Harkness Report. They showed your place and the others they hit last night. And they showed my place. It’s all gone.”
“What do you mean all gone, Mother?”
“It burned down. It caught fire and burned down. The WaComm didn’t have to do a damn thing. There was nothing left. Not a living soul. All those people, all those people.”
She lived in an elder center. Folks saved their whole lives so that they can rent an apartment in one. With the apartment came one meal a day and a small rec center. Some of the fancier ones also had their own grocery stores so that folks didn’t have to go out shopping and risk being shoplifted. But hers wasn’t that fancy. She had been there for a long time and was considered one of the elders. Folks went to her for advice on things, which she gave freely, though with much lip. She used to pretend that she got tired of people bothering her all the time, but really, she liked her position there. Some of her neighbors she had known for a long time.
“They’re all gone,” she said. “All those people.”
She let Lillian take her hand and Gabriel pat her on the back. Lillian had never seen her feisty, name-calling mother look so old before. Ángel pretended not to hear or notice what was going on. He hid his tears in his his book.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Gabriel whispered to Lillian. “You’re being targeted.”
She looked over at her son, who kept his head down and kept reading.
To be continued. . .
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.