Thursday, September 27, 2012
Terminus Machina: "The Firestopper"
Sunrise dabs a ripped square of brown paper bag into a tube of bowstring wax. She’d only had time to salvage the wax, a box of Muscle Man protein bars, and some waterproof matches before the crushing heat and smoke became too much for her to stand. Her eyes got all watery and gross like the day her mom got shot by the Tin Men for taking the special seeds that keep on giving. Mom said stealing was wrong but you can’t steal what’s already been stolen. But still, don’t steal unless you have to.
Sunrise really, really had to.
Sunrise likes how the soft wax rolls onto the black string and makes it all shiny like the skin of a mambo snake. Snake is ok to eat but candy bars taste better sometimes. Sunrise coughs. She has a hard time breathing sometimes. Mom said, “Don’t be a baby. Thirty million people lived with worse air in Beijing for decades and they survived.”
Sunrise tries hard not to be a baby, she really does. Her lungs burned bad, like the time she got the lung-glass disease. “Gentic Enigeering” mom said is what caused it.
Sunrise grips the handles at either end of the crossbow, pressing them together like she is trying to snap a piece of firewood in half. When she was littler, she wasn’t strong enough to cock the crossbow, but now Sunrise can fire and reload in three Mississippis. She’s stronger in other ways too. East says Sunrise is, “A real survivor.”
The Tin Men came by earlier, looking for something with bright lights like white suns. The Tin Men are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. The Shadow Men come sometimes too. The Shadow Men are always bad. The Shadow Men make Sunrise feel funny inside, like she’s going to pop, like the pee pee bags in a pheasant. It’s very bad to pop the pee pee bag in the pheasant when you are cleaning it up after you have shot it. If you pop the pee pee bag, you will taint the meat, and it will taste like sour milk and sadness when you eat it. Sunrise hopes not, but she feels that the Shadow Men might be popping her pee pee bag when they make her feel funny. She is afraid that now she is tainted meat, and that she tastes like sadness too. She feels sad a lot, anyway.
The Tin Men come at any time. They ride on the big giant thunder pheasants. Sunrise thinks maybe these are actually the condors. Mom used to read to Sunrise on the smartfone the stories of the condor, the great spirit of the America in the time before the Sick Men, the time before The Debt. Mom says the Sick Men created The Debt to get more wealths, but the Sick Men make the small people pay The Debt back. Mom says The Debt will never be repaid, but that it will never be forgiven either. The Debt will grind and chew the small people forever, it will cause pain and suffering, but the Sick Men, they will never let it go away. Until all have fallen, the small, the big, even the too big to fall. All will be consumed by the Debt, eventually. “It is the sickness of our time. It is the cancer of post-industrial civilization. It is the answer to the Fermi Paradox.” Sunrise doesn’t understand all of that, but she does understand forgiveness. She forgives mom for leaving. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. That is the prayer Sunrise prayed with mom every night before bed. That is the prayer Sunrise still prays, every night. She hopes that one day she will be able to forgive the Shadow Men, too. Sunrise thinks that debt will be hard to forgive, though.
Sunrise’ tummy hurts and makes her stop thinking the head thoughts. Sunrise must think of the body now, she has not eaten in three sunsets since the last Muscle Man bar. She selects a six inch nail from her crossbow bolt strap that is Velcroed around her forearm. The nail is covered in soot like black baby powder that comes off on Sunrise’ small fingers. Sunrise ran out of the plastic Mega Mart bolts a long time ago. Her bolt holster contains two wooden bolts whittled from cut segments of a small American flag pole. It also contains two other nails that Sunrise unburied from the ash pile of a church that had burnt to the ground. There were many big nails, but so many were bent and crooked and would make for poor shooting. Sunrise chose only the straightest three nails. Nails were like people, Sunrise thinks; you must search hard to find people who are not Bent.
The metal shaft runs up the guide rails, the filed nock clinking against the trigger mechanism of the crossbow. Sunrise likes this sound and it makes her smile.
The wrist holster is made from a trimmed ribbon of sparkly headband, sewn into a dozen pencil-sized loops upon a strip of tote bag strap. The holster is fastened to Sunrise’ wrist with a Velcro strap from an infant’s shoe. Sunrise did not take the shoe from a baby, and Sunrise has never had a little sister or brother, none that had shoes anyway. Mom had a little brother for Sunrise growing inside her tummy, once, and Sunrise liked to listen to her baby brother’s heart beat. Sunrise liked to play with the iPad and e-dollies back then, and she couldn’t wait to show her little brother how to bake a cake on the Baker Bash video game. Now Sunrise thinks that was stupid. Who cares about fake screen-cakes, what about real food? Sunrise tried cake once and didn’t like it. It tasted like emptiness, like food without food in it, just filled up with fake tooth-hurting sweetness. Mom smiled and took the slice of cake back and said, “The grown-up world, it is just like the cake.” Mom cried very much when Sunrise’ brother died inside mom’s tummy. The hospital had closed down a week earlier, because it ran out of money. The Debt ate the hospital. The Debt killed Sunrise’ brother.
The gulls scream as the smoke strangles them like the rough, greasy hands of one of the Shadow Men. Today, it is Roosevelt Street’s turn to burn. Last week it was Market Street and before that San Diego Avenue, but the sour rain put out the flames before San Diego was all gone. Half of the houses on Roosevelt Street have finished burning down, and the big black piles of ash lie down in a row like dominoes. The fire is pretty and hot as it burns the houses down. The fire is red, orange, and yellow, like half a rainbow. Sunrise has never seen a real rainbow, but she knows her colors. Roy G Biv. Rainbows are forgiveness. After God got mad at people and flooded the Earth, God gave a rainbow to the people of Noah as a sign of forgiveness. Feyn says there are no rainbows in the Ashlands because the dense city of ash and other carbom partickles in the air is too high for the sunlight to reflect off the humity, or something. Feyn is smart and talks funny. Sunrise thinks maybe there are no rainbows in the Ashlands because God is not ready to forgive the people of Earth for what they have done, not ready to forgive their debts. Sunrise can understand how God feels.
Sunrise squints, looking around for an animal to hunt for dinner. There are less and less birds all the time. Before, you could throw seeds out and birds would rush down like a carpet bomb of feathers to eat the seeds. Before that, there were McSwifts, and mom would buy Sunrise a 4-piece chicken bites meal with the little plastic buckets of sweet sour sauce to dip and a small fries and a princess toy to play with. Now there are no seeds for Sunrise to throw because the terminator seeds killed them, and even if Sunrise wanted to, the birds are mostly too scared to fly down. Or mostly they’re dead. The Bay is green and thick and gross. It looks like a big giant bucket of sweet sour sauce. Sunrise suspects it is not good for the birds to dip in the Bay, though.
The wind changes, the smoke gets in Sunrise’ eyes and they get watery again. She runs through a yard with a treehouse in it to get away from the smoke. There is a car crashed into the tree and the hood of the car is bent like the top of a can of Spam after you pry it open with a pliers.
Sunrise is worried now because it is getting dark and Shadow Men come out when it gets dark. It is hard to tell when it is sunset, because the fires never go out in the Ashlands, and they make the sky red and pink and full of smoke all the time. It’s also hard to tell when it is sunrise, too. It’s hard to tell when it’s Sunrise. Hahaha, Sunrise laughs inside her head. It’s hard for the birds to tell when it’s Sunrise, because she is sneaky and quiet and moves like a ninja fox. Sunrise has wandered many many blocks but has not yet found a bird. Sunrise feels faint and really really wishes there was a bird for her to eat now. She prays that God will send her a dove, like the dove with the olive branch that God sent to Noah after the flood. Please, God, send me a dove to eat. Amen.
Sunrise comes back to the house with the treehouse and the crashed car. She slings her crossbow over her back with the seatbelt strap she made. Sunrise buckles her seatbelt and adjusts it tight so the crossbow doesn’t fall off. The car has crushed the first two rungs of the wooden ladder nailed into the tree, so Sunrise jumps up onto the car hood and begins climbing the ladder from there. Inside the tree house there are some Transformers toys, a plastic ninja sword, and an AK-47 rifle. The walls of the tree house are made of wood boards, doors, pieces of wavy roof metal and curtains of carpet that smell funny. There is also an Avengers poster stapled up on the carpet, but it is old and scratched up and Captain America’s red white and blue shield is now orange brown and green. Sunrise knows her colors good. There are many bullet holes in the wood and carpet. Rays of red light pour in through the bullet holes and make the dust motes dance in the spotlight. Sunrise remembers watching “America’s Next Dance Diva” and “Dance For Your Food Stamps” on her old fone, remembers wanting to be pretty and famous. Iron man has a chest full of bullet holes and Hawkeye has a jaggedy tear where his eye used to be. It is sad but also it makes Sunrise laugh, out loud. Lol.
There are many empty bullet shells on the wooden floor of the tree house. They look like little copper lipstick tubes, like the ones Sunrise stole from mom to make videos of herself being pretty, like Bella Flair on America’s Next Dance Diva. Many nice men on the internet gave her Thumbs Up and comments and she watched her video views go up on her fone like points in a video game, and Sunrise felt good. Some of the nice men even wanted to come and meet her. Mom got mad when she found out and made Sunrise delete her ‘Tube account. Mom said Sunrise would thank her one day, but it only made Sunrise cry. It felt like half of herself died. Only the string of “comment approval” and “forgotten password” emails remained in her inbox, like the ghost of Famous Sunrise, haunting her forever. Sunrise just wanted a nice man to be with and walk on red carpets with, like Bella Flair had Lord Dada. Talk with on talk shows and make her feel good. Not like the Shadow Men who only make her feel funny and sad.
Transformers and ninja swords are toys for kids. Sunrise leaves them. Glacia says Sunrise is too grown up to be a kid, and Sunrise knows this is true. Sunrise forgets how old she is because she does not have birthdays with cakes to remind her, just like adults. Sunrise is not a kid but not an adult. Feyn would say that she is a “kidult”. Feyn talks funny. He sticks his words together sometimes. He is good at making new things with old things.
The AK-47 is a strong gun to hunt dogs, bears, and kill people with. The AK-47 makes a big thunder, too, and this is not good when you want to be sneaky and quiet. Bad people might hear you and come looking, bad people like the Shadow Men. This is why the condor is exstink. The thunder bird made a big thunder and the bad people came looking. This is why Sunrise uses her crossbow, because it is quiet and you cannot run out of ammo because everything can be ammo for a crossbow. Sunrise loves her crossbow and hugs it like a teddy. She loves it as much as she used to love her smartfone when it still had internet.
It is hard to find ammo for things in the real world. If this were Zombie Apocalypse Mania video game, Sunrise would be able to open any mailbox and there would be ammo in there. Maybe a health pack. Inside of the hood of a car there might be an RPG. An RPG could even blow up one of the Tin Men’s thunder birds. Tin Men cannot die, though, even if you blow them up with stinger missiles or shoot them full of holes with an AK-47. They do not bleed, because they have no heart. They are made of metal and wires and algorillas. They are like Transformers toys, but used by very bad adults. Mostly they are used for killing and arresting.
Sunrise picks up the AK-47. It is heavy and cold and has some blood on it, but the blood is old and black like Oreo McFlurry crumbs. The magazine comes out with a “shick”. There are some bullets still inside of the magazine, and Sunrise counts them. One, two, three, four, five, six. Sunrise can do counting, plus, minus, times, and divide with not too big numbers. Sunrise’ mom taught her these maths because the public schools got closed down. Schools got eaten up by The Debt, just like the hospitals. Later, when Glacia taught Sunrise about guns and shooting, she said, “Always put two in the heart, one in the head.” Two bullets plus one bullet, that is three bullets to kill a person. Sunrise has six bullets. Six divided by three, that is two. Sunrise can kill two people dead. Who needs school? Sunrise is so smart.
The crossbow can also kill people, but not as easy as the AK-47. This is why Sunrise chooses to take the big heavy machine gun with her, because it is dangerous in the Ashlands, and Sunrise is smart. Sunrise wants to stop thinking about killing people now, though, because it makes her feel sad and scared, like there are worms in her heart. Sunrise is afraid that if she thinks about killing people too much the worms will eat her heart all up and there will be nothing left but a shadow in her chest. Since she has been separated from her Second Family, Sunrise has sometimes had to do bad things. She misses East and Feyn and Glacia and the others very much. This is why she tries to think about them in her head thoughts, because it makes her feel like they are half-there, haunting her. Like Famous Internet Sunrise, but in a good way.
Sunrise has been trying to go home for a long time now, but the way is difficult. The magic Pathfinder in Sunrise’ smartfone is dead. The jee-pee-ess app that used to guide her down every block to school and malls and VR movie theaters, across every street, like an invisible mommy holding Sunrise’ hand. The Pathfinder is dead, along with all her music, games, online friends, the wizard in her fone that answered all her questions. Now there are only street signs, many bent the wrong way, the words boiling away with rust. Maps speak a foreign language anyway, they are like math that is above Sunrise’ grade, like extra credit. School said Sunrise did not need to know about maps because no people would ever need to find their own way again thanks to smartfones. There are no paper maps anyway because there is no paper anymore. Paper was all burned up, too, but in a different fire from the housefires, an invisible fire in the Cloud, that started with a Kindle. Feyn calls this, “Digital Fahrenheit 451”.
The fire has now burned down Roosevelt Street up to mailbox number 1349. The wind blows flaming pieces of Oak tree and roof from 1349 onto 1351, and now it is house with mailbox 1351’s turn to burn down. Mom explained once that this is like how The Debt ate the world. The Sick Men soaked the world in Debt like flammable gasoline, but they didn’t care because they made money from the gasoline. One day a spark happened in Greece and it caught on fire. Then some pieces of Greece’ flaming roof flew onto Italy and Spain, and then pieces of Italy and Spain blew onto France and the UK, like marathon runners handing on torches in the Olympics. Then the fire did a big pole-jump over the Atlantic Ocean to the USA, and we started burning down too. 1351 is a big mansion with many levels and fancy pillars and a big yard with a pool. 1351 is like the USA. It is big and will take a long time, but eventually it will burn down, like all the other houses.
Sunrise looks at the Avengers poster. She likes Black Widow the Best. Black Widow is very pretty with her red hair and tight black clothes. Black Widow is Russian, though, and so this is normal. Black Widow is very smart and strong, and knows how to trick people into doing what she wants, like how she tricks the Russian mob guys and even Loki, the god of trickery. Black Widow could beat the Shadow Men easy with a pretty look and a scorpion kick. Black Widow’s mom would never make her delete her internet videos of herself dancing. Black Widow has a nice man named Hawkeye to text with and share ice cream sundaes and fight evil doers.
It is very dark now. Sunrise has been talking to Black Widow for a long time about how she wishes she could have a nice juicy tomagranite with East and listen to Feyn mix together his funny words and play hide-n-assassinate with Glacia. Sunrise is so hungry now and her tummy yells at her to give it food and Sunrise says sorry, I have none yet. Sunrise wishes all the houses had not already been looted or Sunrise would run in to 1353 and gather up as many pork and beans and expired Oreos and rancid peanut butter as she could hold in her backpack and arms and run back out before 1353 burns down. But all the food from the old America before the Sick Men is gone now. All you can do is hunt or gather. And Sunrise cannot grow any tomagranites or super algae, not here in the Ashlands where everything burns down before it can be allowed to live and where the Shadow Men take the rest. Sunrise prays again for the dove, doing it extra hard this time with her eyes shut tight. Please, God, send me a dove and I will never skip out of my chores ever again.
And then, it’s there. A bird lands in the street. It is small, not a dove. Sunrise thinks it is a swallow. It is hard to tell in the dark but it looks like a swallow with a white belly and black back like a tiny orca whale with wings. It is not a dove, but it is something. It is something. Beggars can’t be choosers, mom would say, and Sunrise did just beg God.
The night sky is big and dark, a black red, like the inside of a man’s mouth when he opens it to kiss you badly or yell at you to shut the fuck up. It will be difficult to take a good shot, but Sunrise must take it. In the tree house, she is too far to have a good chance of hitting the swallow with the crossbow. She could use the AK-47, but that would be messy and dangerous and a waste. Sunrise moves silent like Black Widow down the ladder, and does not step on the car hood because creaking car springs might scare the swallow. Sunrise places one foot in front of the other, heel to toe, just like Glacia taught her in the hide-and-assassinate game, just before she would stab Sunrise in the kidney with a Sharpie. The grass is overgrown to Sunrise’ thighs and whispers against Sunrise’ patchwork skirt and makes her ankles itchy. She crouches down behind a plastic kid’s slide in the yard. Sunrise guesses she is thirty feet from the swallow which is within the crossbow’s good range.
The wind has died and so the red yellow orange blaze stops walking down Roosevelt Street, almost like the neighborhood fire is watching Sunrise and the swallow, waiting. Cars, streetlights, the sparrow, all have dancing orange shadows taller than they are, as if the souls of things are trying to run away from the fire before the bodies are consumed. The bird is a small target, smaller than the head of a man, and it walks around pecking at something on the ground. It is like shooting a needle in a haystack, but Sunrise must make this shot, she must, or she will starve. She will surely starve. Her head fills with pictures of a dog pecking livers from human rib cages like she’d seen on 8th Avenue a month ago before she killed and ate the same dog and this makes her heart loud. Glacia taught Sunrise that a loud heart is bad for the aim and so she forces herself to think of happy thoughts like helping East clean the tilapia tank and gather tomagranites from the aquaponic garden. She thinks of mom. There’s no place like home. Sunrise breathes like ocean waves as she locks the crossbow’s iron sights onto the sparrow. She recalibrates her aim upward, just the thickness of a fingernail to compensate for distance. She is thankful again that the wind has stopped.
The bowstring snaps as loud as a snapping twig. The bow does not punch Sunrise in the shoulder like the AK-47.
The bird shoots away leaving a puff of feathers.
Sunrise jumps! She is so happy that she almost pees. She does not actually pee because this would be a waste of water and also stinky. She can almost taste the taste of tender oily swallow breast in her mouth as she slings the crossbow on her back and goes to harvest the kill. Like KFC. She has no special herbs and spices to batter the meat with but she will use a flaming piece of doghouse from the yard of 1357 as a hibachi to cook on. California Fried Swallow, fried with a real piece of California. In the back of Sunrise’ head thoughts she thinks, “Why did I take the matches from the Sports Czar store when the fire is everywhere?” What is it that Feyn says all the time… “Inflammation wants to be free.” Inflammation is free, in the Ashlands. You can have anything burned at no cost.
As Sunrise is about to pick up her bird, she sees a tall shadow. The tall shadow dances, grows taller. Other tall shadows gather, lines of bright and dark rake the street, like the teeth of an angler fish or the bars of a prison cell. Sunrise looks up and sees that the tall shadows come from people. Sunrise knows instantly that these are Shadow Men. She cannot yet see their faces for they are like black construction paper cutouts against the bright inflammation of Roosevelt Street, but Sunrise knows from something about the way they’re standing, not moving there, that they are Shadow Men.
Shadow Men are not ghosts and they are not dark like shadows, although some of them are African or Tongan. East says they are like the black clouds that cover the Ashland sky like an oil spill that no one wants to clean up. Instead of cleaning up the gross oil that turns the ocean and beaches black, the Sick Men build their own private oceans and beaches inside of their private cities, guarded by the Tin Men and missile-shooter drones. “’Supposedly, austerity and privatization solves all things. Big government is bad, including police departments.’ The proliferation of crime and anarchy are just the externalized cost of The Debt.”
Sunrise counts one, two, three, four shadows. Sunrise has six bullets, which is enough to kill two people dead, or three kids. None of the shadows are small enough to be kids. Sunrise could use one or two bullets on each man, but that would be stretching it thin, overleveraging. Overleveraging is what killed the global finachal system. It would also probably kill Sunrise. Sunrise grasps the dying bird by its hard rough feet that feel like wiggling number 2 pencils in her fist. Sunrise grabs the swallow’s neck and twists like opening a bottle of Mountain Dew. There is a little snap, just like when the plastic safety seal breaks on the Mountain Dew. Sunrise likes this sound, it is comforting, but also she is sorry for the bird. Sorry bird. But I really, really have to.
Sunrise does not take her eyes off of the shadows as she does this, even as she unzips her My Little Pony backpack to stick the bird carcass in. She begins to back up, and the shadows crawl up the sidewalk toward her. Perhaps the Shadow Men do not yet know that she has a gun, and definitely they do not know how many bullets she has. Also, the Shadow Men will think that Sunrise is weak because she is a small girl. Black Widow would use this to her advantage, and so does Sunrise. The word for this is called “disarming”, it is a big special word that Sunrise’ mom taught her, and Sunrise is proud of herself to have remembered it.
Sunrise turns, begins running toward the nearest house, which is 1368. 1368 has barbed wire all around the top of its green picket fence like the frosting on a birthday cake. There is an ess-you-vee in the driveway that has a black, green, and yellow camouflage paintjob. In the yard there are scarecrows stuffed with pillow fluff and packing peanuts with heads made of coconuts painted the colors of bruises to look like zombies. The coconut zombie heads have bullet holes, ninja stars, crossbow bolts, machetes, wakizashis, and other weapons stuck in them. Sunrise takes the crossbow bolts which are factory-made aluminum shaft. They are super cylindrical and shiny, not like she’s used to. The windows of 1368 all have metal blinds on them. There are two rubber zombie heads on spikes hanging on either side of the front door. There is a sign on the front door that says, “Zombie Apocalypse Keep Out”. There is lots of armor on the door and windows but the door latch is small and weak and is unlocked. There are two dead bodies on the ‘Welcome!’ carpet dressed in black boots, bullet-stopper vests, gas masks, nightvision goggles, and other tactical gear. Looks like they were prepared, just prepared for the wrong apocalypse. They should’ve prepared for an undead economy rather than undead people. Sunrise has seen these zombie apocalypse types before. They are sad but also funny.
Sunrise checks the two bodies for useful objects. They smell like pig jerky when you don’t cure the meat right and it starts getting bad. There are no guns or good things on the bodies. Sunrise takes two of the fake grenades from the shiny black utility belt of one of the preppers. She carefully balances one of the grenades on the door knob of the front door, then runs to the back and does the same on the rear door. If anyone opens the doors to 1368, Sunrise will know.
Revlon is the most popular brand of lipstick, with Bed of Roses the most popular shade. Sunrise knows this from going on Cosmo fashion tips back when her smartfone had internet. Sunrise knows many colors, but Bed of Roses is a funny color. It is like pink, except more pink than pink. Adults find ways to make simple things complicated. Adults are funny. Bed of Roses pink is the color of the sky when it is day time. The white clouds and black smoke mix together into a gray paste and then the red fires reach up like fingers to fingerpaint the sky pink like Bed of Roses. Some of the clouds are big and round like lips, too. Someday, Sunrise will escape the Ashlands, take a metal thunder bird up to Ameribank City, to New Lacuna, where the beautiful people are. There she will have a doctor give her collajin to make her lips big and round like Bella Flair’s.
Sunrise hides behind a refrigerator, which has posters for movies like Resident Evil 7 and Bob Dylan: Vampire Slayer on it. She does not bother to open the refrigerator because she knows its coldness is gone and everything in it is gone. She double checks the AK-47 to make sure that it is loaded and that the safety is off. If she can get close enough, she may be able to kill the Shadow Men with just six bullets. She does not want to feel bad and funny inside again. She does not want to be tainted meat. Maybe these Shadow Men will keep her, like a pig in a pen, like a farm animal. She has seen other young girls chained up, like the last time the Shadow Men got her. They threw Sunrise in a jail cell in a police station, put a leash on her and fed her doggie food. Sunrise was smart, gouged the Shadow Man’s eyes out with a sharpened piece of toothbrush when he came the second time to kiss her badly. She got away. Maybe she will be less lucky this time. She is scared and feels like crying. Sunrise wants her mommy. But she makes her eye waters go away. There will be time for crying later. Now she must be hard and strong like Black Widow.
Time passes, the smell of smoke gets stronger, there is a heat now and the white window curtains light up like spirit lamps floating to the sea in an Asian festival. Perhaps the Shadow Men have given up, don’t think Sunrise is worth it?
Then there is a thud. Heavy, and rolling, like a giant marble. The Shadow Men are inside, now. Their footsteps are slow, but not quiet enough. Sunrise counts: one, two, three pairs of feet. Maybe one is waiting outside. Two sets of footsteps are getting louder, one is going up the stairs. Six divided by three, that is two bullets for each, if the other has left. Maybe if she waits for the upstairs one to go far away, she can take out the two coming towards her and make a run. Sunrise hears the sound of a machete scraping a wall. She does not want to be chopped up, but this is good because it means that one doesn’t have a gun. There are many things to think about in a short time. This is much harder than any of the school tests. Sunrise misses school.
Sunrise can still hear the upstairs one but only soft now. The other two are in the room with her. She can smell the smell of old peepee and rotten meat and vodka and cancer smoke. Not the smoke from the inflammation housefires, but the smoke from the small sticks that used to kill millions of people every year, but now no one can afford to die from black lungs. Now mostly you die of starvation or fighting over food, unless you are very, very beautiful and have holograms to sing your concerts and go to awards shows for you. Sunrise wishes she could have Famous Sunrise take her place and fight the Shadow Men now. Famous Sunrise was too beautiful to be hurt.
The footsteps of the Shadow Men have stopped now, but Sunrise knows, somehow, that they are right there, almost inside of her personal bubble of space like Feyn always tells Sunrise to get out of when she jumps on his lap. She must do it now.
Sunrise jumps out from behind the fridge. The closest is wearing a face mask and has a machete in his hand. The other has a hand gun. Sunrise shoots hand gun in his chest two times before he has a chance to raise his weapon. The AK-47 kicks Sunrise so hard she almost flies out a window and the sound is so loud and sets off angry grasshoppers in Sunrise’ ears. Blood shoots out all over a gold-framed poster for Mad Max 2, the one where he has that funny one-armed jacket. Now Max is red in the face. The machete man has raised his machete and is about to bring the dull rusty blade down on Sunrise and she takes a snap shot that hits him in the crotch. The machete comes down and slashes her arm which cuts through her sleeve and hurts a lot but is only shallow. The Shadow Man screams high, like Bella Flair showing off her super high notes with autotune and autotrill on. Blood comes down like a waterfall from between his legs and puddles out under him so fast that it scares Sunrise. She runs past the two fallen Shadow Men. The third is yelling and flying down the stairs. His mouth is a cavern of red and black as he calls Sunrise a filthy bitch cunt whore and tells her all the bad things he is going to do to her. He has a club made from a baseball bat and nails, and is missing some teeth. Sunrise shoots him in the kneecap, then in an arm and he goes tumbling down the stairs.
Three plus two, that is five. Six minus five, that is one. Sunrise has one more bullet. Sunrise hopes that she is lucky and that the fourth Shadow Man did not come with the others and is gone. Glacia would say that you should never rely on luck. “You must have really, really bad luck if you were born in San Francisco and not Ameribank City or New Pigalle.” You need to always prepare for the worst, especially with bad luck like Sunrise’.
Sunrise was so busy shooting people that she did not notice that it is now Roosevelt Street 1368’s turn to burn down. The heat bounces out of the walls in waves and presses down on Sunrise and it feels like being underneath a large hot sweaty man. The paint peels from the walls like bok choi dying from hydra rust. Bubbling up and melting. Sunrise runs for the back door but dark smoke slithers in like snakes under the back door, and she cannot go that way. Flames stare in at Sunrise through the front door’s windows as well. The fire is now in the living room and is crawling across the rug, exploding glass, and Sunrise can see the fake zombie heads melting like wasted candles. Sunrise can see the Shadow Man she shot in the kneecap crawling around the staircase. He is on fire and screaming for help as his hair burns off and he becomes bald.
The smoke begins to fill the kitchen where the other two Shadow Men are probably dead, hopefully. They are not moving, but Sunrise stays far away from them anyway. There is one way out and that is the window. Sunrise runs to the window. Sunrise lifts as hard as she can but the window is nailed down shut.
A loud sound like rolling thunder and fat dubstep bass on stadium speakers shakes the house. The windows flash white like strobe lights, lights that are not the color of fire. Sunrise looks out the window to see the big giant metal condors flying against the black-red sky. They have white suns inside them that shoot out bright daylight like spotlights that rake across the burning block. The lights are so bright they are light blue and it looks like the thunderbirds are hosing water across the housefires, but the Tin Men inside of the metal thunderbirds are not going to put out any fires, Sunrise knows. Platinum. This is the color of the lights. Sunrise thinks she can almost see the Tin Men inside of the condors when one of them comes close and she can see the sapphire blue fires shooting out of the condors wings that make it float. The Tin Men are also platinum colored. Platinum is a very fancy lipstick that Bella Flair might use in a music video where she’s a robot with sparkly metal boobies, or probably the anime imaginary-popstar Ai would use it on her cartoon hologram lips for a concert in Tokyo.
“Help! Help me! Help!” Sunrise yells out the window at the Tin Men in the condor as their Platinum sun stops on Sunrise. She is blind a second then holds her hand to shield her face. The Tin Men see her, she is sure of it. They watch her for a little bit as the condor hangs in the air, its jets blowing the overgrown grass down into a green bowl as 1368 get eaten by the flames with Sunrise inside it. Then the platinum sun shifts away and the Tin Men fly their metal condor up and into the night, leaving sunrise to die in the fire. The Tin Men were supposed to replace the policemens and the firestoppers, but they do not stop the bad Shadow Men nor do they stop the fires, or save little girls from fires. The Tin Men are not good or bad, Sunrise knows now. The Tin Men have no heart with which to care. They only do the algorillas that the Sick Men give them.
The fire grows and Sunrise must save herself now. There is a giant titanium spork the size of a baseball bat on the kitchen counter. Sunrise grabs it, and hits the window as hard as she can. The glass breaks, but there are still the metal blinds there. There is a label on them that says, “Zombies Beware: Apocalypse Prepared”. Sunrise says a bad word at the preppers’ house and wishes it was never ever cool to prepare for zombie apocalypses. Bloody Mad Max gets eaten by the fire along with the empty fridge, and a happy family picture with a kid and a dog, hanging on a wall. The two Shadow Men on the ground don’t make sounds when the fire washes over them. Sunrise coughs and her eyes blur and burn bad. She does not want to use her last bullet but there is only one way. She runs over to pick up the handgun from the Shadow Man who is on fire, and screams as the fire bites her arm like a rattlesnake. She shoots the gun twice at the window where it is nailed down, spraying wood pieces everywhere. She shoves the giant spork under the window and jumps on top of the handle with all her might. The window cracks open, and Sunrise slides it up, smoke shooting out like a fountain. She cannot breath and cannot see now, and her lungs are filled with pain and death, they feel like what she imagined it felt like to have the black tumorous lungs of cancer smokers that she saw at the hospital during her drug education class for homeschoolers. Sunrise’ head is out the window now, but she is having trouble getting her shoulders through, like mom said when she was born, and the doctors said they had to do a C-section, but mom yelled at the doctors. Sunrise’ mom told Sunrise she’d rather have a ripped vagina than be pumped full of drugs and fake hormones and have an artificial birth with brainhead male doctors who’d never had their own kids. “The adult world is fake, Sunrise. The adults, they put on pretty clothes, nice ties, make promises they can’t keep with money that isn’t theirs. One day, we will run out of disguises, and we will not be able to hide our wretchedness, our bankruptcy of spirit anymore. All of the fakeness, it will burn down to the ground. The Debt will eat everything. Hopefully your generation will know better what is real.”
Strong hands pull Sunrise through the opening. The hands wear a red and yellow shiny jacket. Sunrise coughs and coughs but slowly catches her breath. It is an angel, a guardian angel who has come to save her. It is a man, who has a hat like a baseball cap but bigger and red. Sunrise knows this is the clothes of the firestoppers. The firestoppers used to have jobs stopping the fires. They had to come if you were bad and played with matches like Sunrise did when she was four or like cousin Julian did when he tried to light Chase Bank on fire and make a video of it for his finachul activism theesis, but then was taken away to the military re-education camp for American citizens. A fire would grow up from eating the curtains and walls, then the firestoppers would come in on their red trucks with sirens and climb up with their hoses and put out all the fires with water.
Sunrise coughs all the smoke out of her lungs and the cool night air tastes like a nice cold mango chai Zamba Juice slushie. It is so good to breath. It is the best thing in life.
“Thank you so much, you saved me,” Sunrise says to the firestopper. The firestopper does not say anything. He just stands there and stares at her. The fire from 1368 is bright and splashes lightning off his shiny suit.
But the Debt, it one day ate the firestoppers too. One day the govermint gave all its money to save the bank and its debts and there was no money left to pay even the firestopper to put out the fires in San Francisco. No one was left to put out the fires that people started. And since people never stop starting fires (that’s just how people are) the fires kept growing and burning down everything, one block at a time. The areas closest to the warzones are where the most fires are. This is how the Ashlands were born in San Francisco.
The firestopper grabs Sunrise by the hair and begins to drag her away. Sunrise screams and scratches at the firestopper’s hands and arms. “Kick them in their happy place,” Glacia’s ghost says in Sunrise’ head. But she can’t reach from here. The firestopper slaps Sunrise hard in the mouth. This cuts Sunrise inside her mouth and her mouth fills with the taste of the brown water that comes out of the pipes of San Francisco. It tastes of blood and old metal, which taste the same. This is what firemen used to do: drag you out of burning buildings to save you. Except now the fireman is dragging Sunrise away not to save her from a fire but to fill her with a fire, to make her feel sad and funny. To pop her peepee bag and taint her meat. This is sad and funny. Lol.
Sunrise knows now that this is not a firestopper but a Shadow Man. The fourth Shadow Man. Or maybe he used to be a firestopper, but now he has become a Shadow Man. Who knows? Sunrise is dragged through the tall grass that overgrows the yard and it itches her face. She is dragged over a slip-n-slide with a female zombie in a bikini on it. Her head bangs into an ATV kid’s jeep left in the yard and her vision turns fuzzy white a second, like the color of San Francisco sky right after a hard sour rain has just put out the fires, for a little while. Sunrise can hear her skirt rip on the patched part and her butt gets a rash as she slides on the asphalt. Her shoe Velcro comes off and she tries not to lose her shoe but does.
At last the firestopper Shadow Man stops dragging her and lets go of her hair. Sunrise immediately looks around for her AK-47 but the Shadow Man has it. The chamber clinks as he checks it. Now he knows how many bullets Sunrise has left: one. Sunrise is disarmed.
Sunrise reaches for her ginsu kitchen knife in her backpack.
“Ah, ah, ah,” the firestopper Shadow Man says, pointing the AK-47 at Sunrise’ forehead. The barrel is big and round like a zero, and it’s so close that it makes Sunrise’ eyes feel funny like when you make cross-eyes. Sunrise stops.
“Take the backpack off, slowly.” The man sounds old but does not look too old. Not older than East or Sunrise’ mom would have been. His voice sounds like the voice of guys who drink a lot of the fire water. Like he has a bad cold in his throat that he cannot kick. Sunrise takes the backpack off.
“Give it to me.”
The firestopper Shadow Man has not yet called Sunrise a fucking little cunt yet, or told her about how he is going to make her bleed inside, so that’s a good thing. Usually the Shadow Man would be saying that a lot by now, and probably touching her hard in her privates. Although, the quiet polite ones are sometimes the worst ones. They are adults, after all.
The firestopper Shadow Man empties out Sunrise’ backpack on the sidewalk and takes all the weapons including her ginsu knife, slingshot, crossbow, and all of her crossbow bolts. He makes Sunrise unvelcro her crossbow bolt holder on her arm, and takes that too. This makes Sunrise sad. She worked very hard on it.
The firestopper Shadow Man has a scruffy black face with a little pink spot where his lips are, like the butt of a laborador. He looks at Sunrise funny, like Sunrise is a very bright light and he is making his eyebrows lower to see better.
“How old are you, girl?” The firestopper Shadow Man says with his crunchy voice.
“I am eleven years old I think,” Sunrise says, without thinking.
“I am not sure how old I am. I don’t have birthday parties anymore and I forget how many days are in all the months.” Sunrise feels so embarrassed about the second part. “There is nothing more important than your own education. Invest in yourself before anything else,” mom said. The only calenders were electronic on Sunrise’ fone: there are no paper calenders. But still, how could Sunrise forget the number of days in the months? The firestopper Shadow Man’s face does not change. He still has a hard time seeing Sunrise.
The firestopper’s eyes do not look happy. They look like the way East looks at the Tin Men when they come down and set fire to the tomagranite plants or throw pieces of his hydroponics garden off the roof of the Matson containers. Sunrise is still scared, and even if he has not done anything yet, he is still a Shadow Man.
“What are you going to do with me?” Sunrise asks. The firestopper Shadow Man finds Sunrise’ pencil case that is covered in Bella Flair, My Little Pony, and Black Widow stickers. He turns the pencil case around in his big dirty fingers that are like old blackening bananas. He turns it around like he is looking for the break in the blue fuzz where you peel open a dragon orange. The pencil case has a couple pencils, but is mostly full of pills Sunrise has stolen, like candy Tylenols and pencillillin and Gene-Cleanse gels that Sunrise has to take to help her when she gets the lung-glass problem from the gentic enigeering in the food. Also, there are a couple pixie sticks that Sunrise has been saving for a special occasion.
The firestopper Shadow Man stops turning Sunrise’ pencil case around. He stops squinting for a little bit and looks like he gets a little bit sore in his face. Maybe he was burnt by the fire when he saved Sunrise and only realizes it now.
“Do you have parents?” The firestopper Shadow Man says.
“My daddy and mommy have gone away,” Sunrise says, shaking her head. “But my Second Family is in SoHA. I am not sure where that is but I have been trying to go there.”
The firestopper Shadow Man puts Sunrise’ pencil case back in her bag. He fixes his firestopper coat, which looks like it is old. It is very dirty and scratched up and has some bad tears. There is also some blood on it on the arms. The firestopper coats are supposed to be able to withstand any fire, even very hot fires, and will protect you. Maybe that’s why this Shadow Man has the coat. He picks up the AK-47 again, looks through the sights, aims at the treehouse that Sunrise was in before, that is now burning bright between the black tree limbs like a tiger in the night.
“That was my cousin you killed, in that house,” the firestopper Shadow Man says, aiming the gun at Sunrise again. Now Sunrise is very scared again, so scared that she does pee pee in her panties. It is warm and gross but she is too scared. Sunrise is so sorry that she killed the Shadow Men even though she had to. She hates killing people and now she is going to die for killing people. It is so unfair. She hates the Ashlands, she hates the world. Fuck you, world! Fuck you, world, with these people in it! God will never forgive the people of Earth, he will only give his lieing half-rainbows that burn everything. He will only pretend to bail you out, but then he will just give you more austerity and pain and suffering. And that is fine because Sunrise will never forgive the Shadow Men, and she will never forgive God. Sunrise hopes that the Debt finishes eating the small people up, then eats the big people, then the too big to fall people, and then the Debt will eat the holograms of Bella Flair and Lord Dada and eat up their ice cream sundaes, then eat them up too. Then Sunrise hopes that The Debt will come up the stairway to heaven, eat through the pearly gates just like it ate rusty holes through the Golden Gates, and eat God’s eyes right out, like a dove, pecking at a corpse on Lombard Street.
Sunrise falls down in her pee pee puddle, and begins to cry so hard that it hurts her lungs some.
Then the firestopper Shadow Man does something very strange. He lowers the gun. He looks like he is very sore again in his eyes. It could be that some ashes flew in them.
“I suppose I should thank you.” The Shadow Man’s face cracks at the edges of his eyes and on his forehead, and his laborador butt mouth shakes. Sunrise tries to stop crying but she keeps sobbing and tearing. She cannot stop crying fast, like adults can. She may be a kidult but she is still a little kid, and kids have to keep crying for some time.
“I told them. I tried to make them stop. How many times it happened before, how many girls. I told him, that bastard. But I,” His knuckles turn white on the gun barrel of the AK-47 and his jaw moves around under the skin like the shoulders of a cat. “I couldn’t do it.” Sunrise does not know what he is talking about, but she thinks the firestopper Shadow Man might have his turn to have the water in the eyes that is not from the smoke. He just bobs up and down a little bit though, like he is laughing without sound. But Sunrise knows somehow that nothing is funny. It is just sad.
“What’s your name, girl?” The firestopper Shadow Man asks after he stops bobbing.
“My name is Sunrise,” Sunrise says. She stops for a second and thinks. She has not been around other people who were not mean and yelling and wanting to do bad things to her for a long time. Sunrise has forgotten the polite things to say that you are supposed to. “What’s yours?” She remembers finally.
“Bradbury,” the firestopper Shadow Man says. Sunrise looks closely at his firestopper hat. On it, she can just read “Bradbury” in flashing orange letters as the last throes of the Roosevelt Street fire calm down in clumps of ember like giant campfires.
“This firestopper suit, it has your name on it. How did you put your name on this costume?” Sunrise asks.
“’Firestopper?’” Bradbury laughs at this. “I think you mean firefighter. Well, I used to be a firefighter, once upon a time. Back when we had real firefighters.”
“So you just kept the clothes to stay safe from the Ashland inflammations?” Sunrise asks.
“You could say that.” Bradbury scratches his furry chin with his black big nails. “I guess I wasn’t ready to give up being a firefighter just because some lobbyists convinced politicians that we didn’t need firefighters as much as we needed to pay for the bad bets and bonuses of hotshot bankers.”
“I don’t get it,” Sunrise says. “You’re wearing your work clothes even though there’s no work anymore, so that we will still have firestoppers – I mean firefighters – around? Like how even though there’s no more cowboys, people still wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats on Halloween and at cosplay meetups?”
Bradbury smiles, and this cracks his face again but different. Sunrise now knows that Bradbury is not really a Shadow Man. The Shadow Men never smile, except when they are far inside their Happy Place. And then even if they are looking at you, it is never you they are smiling at, really.
“Yeah. Firefighters, we’re the new coyboys. We should go. There’s supposed to be an NGO hub up north, maybe a days walk. They got a soup kitchen, bread lines. Real Grapes of Wrath kinda place, but it’s something.” Sunrise nods. She does not understand everything Bradbury says but she thinks maybe he is nice and she does not want to be in the Ashlands any longer. She also does not want to be alone, and she hopes she has found a friend. Sunrise understands that she now owes two debts to Bradbury. Sunrise hopes that she can one day repay the debt she owes Bradbury for saving her life. Sunrise knows that taking the life of Bradbury’s cousin Shadow Man cannot be repaid, but she hopes that one day Bradbury will forgive her this debt.
Sunrise dusts off her butt and legs which are still itchy. Her lungs feel heavy, but at least they don’t burn and hurt like lung-glass disease. Sunrise walks beside Bradbury away from the fire. Sunrise remembers that cowboys are supposed to ride into the sunset in the movies. But then those are just fake make-believe cowboys in fake make-believe movies. Firefighters are for real. Maybe if we had enough firefighters, we could put out the Ashland fires, and maybe even put out the world’s debt fires. Maybe one day people will make movies about firefighters who walk away from the sunset.
The color of Roosevelt Street is now Endless Ruby, that is a long-lasting Superstay lip stain with microflex formula. This is a color that Black Widow would probably wear on her lips after she finishes tricking Thanos into telling her where the Cosmic Cube is and getting it back with the Avengers, when Black Widow is going out to a Bella Flair hologram-concert with Hawkeye, then an orbital rave afterwards with zero-g rainbow dance floors and trode-stims to get happy. The fires have lost all of their fingers and tongues, now they just sit there and glow Endless Ruby, like throbbing cartoon hearts. These mounds of rubies will not be endless, though. Tomorrow, there will be just smoking black ash piles where the houses from 1300 to 1400 once stood. 1400 minus 1300, that is one hundred houses destroyed tonight. Maybe mom was wrong about the Debt. The inflammation of San Francisco and the world cannot last forever. Eventually the fire will run out of fuel, just like the greed of the Sick Men will run out of lies to turn into Debt. Maybe one day The Debt will eat even itself, and all of it will have to be forgiven with a big rainbow jubilee across the world. Maybe then the small people and the big people and the too big to fall people and the beautiful people and God can all get a new start to build things up.