They began calling numbers at an ungodly hour, in that sliver of night just before dawn when nothing good happened but bad things often did, not because they had to, but because they could.
Ben Sullivan had been dozing since midnight; the fatigue had finally closed in around him like a noose and left him hovering in that thin space between sleep and wakefulness. His body buzzed upon the call of each number, and when he finally heard his own, a loud, drawling NUMBER FOUR, laced with a Southern twang like good barbecue soaked in pepper vinegar, his eyes shot open and his heart began pounding like a coke-fueled hummingbird’s. He gently rubbed his eyes, ran his hands across his face, trying to massage some life back into his skin. The fear and stress had carved inside him deep canyons of exhaustion that would soon need to be filled with real sleep, but he didn’t have time for that now. He would sleep later.
“Here,” Ben called out as he staggered to his feet.
He pulled on the straps of his permanent companion, a haggard-looking blue backpack he’d carried during law school, now dirty, paper-thin, having lived up to its promised warranty and then some, in situations probably not envisioned by the good people at L.L. Bean. It held a pocketknife, two cans of ravioli, a canteen of water, some toiletries, a thin blanket, and his papers. Its straps had frayed, the zipper barely functioning. In other words, it was just hanging on. Like everything and everyone else.
They were in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center in Short Pump, an unincorporated suburban community in Henrico County, just west of the city of Richmond, Virginia, camped out in a federal staging area known as the Cage. Years ago, the strip mall had been quilted together from a menu of suburban prerequisites, a mishmash of stand-alone fast-food joints, nail salons, and wireless phone stores. A huge Walmart at the southeastern tip had anchored the development in headier times. Now the one-acre parking lot served as a clearinghouse for government-sponsored job lotteries, swap meets, day-laborer pickups, and all manner of illicit commerce.
The U.S. Department of Reconstruction & Recovery had set up a cattle call in the southwest corner of the sprawling shopping center just outside an old Taco Bell restaurant. About three hundred people were packed into the Cage like hogs and not smelling much better. Portable spotlights ringed the perimeter, blasting the Cage with harsh sodium light from which there was no escape.
Despite the early hour, the air was swollen with humidity; it had been drizzling off and on all night. It was the sort of rain that seemed ready to burst, like an overripe piece of fruit, and wash away the stickiness. It never did, leaving you wanting, the itch unscratched, the sneeze un-sneezed. The sky simply perspired, the intermittent drip-drip-drip of the rain against the asphalt nothing short of maddening.
Ben had been in the Cage for sixteen hours now. It had been his luckiest break yet, finding out about the job fair before word of it had been announced on Freedom One. He’d been one of the first on site, scoring a very low lottery number, which meant that he’d be one of the first considered. The Department made its hires on the spot, and when all the slots were filled, that was that.
Thanks for playing, but you can return to your regularly scheduled programming of starving to death with your families.
The job lotteries, which started at four in the morning, were as organized as anything else these days, which was, to say, not very. They were first announced via Freedom One, the government-controlled communications network and then just as quickly by mouth. Hundreds of people lined up for each lottery, often for just a handful of job openings. Some days there were a dozen jobs; every now and again, you’d stumble across a job fair with thirty. The typical gig involved manual labor – debris cleanup, construction, body removal, the dirty work required after the closest thing the world had seen to total apocalypse since the asteroid had wiped out the dinosaurs.
Security was loosely maintained by a small platoon of Volunteers, the new federal security force that had been commissioned after the Panic ended. The lightly trained soldiers kept a disinterested eye on the corral; they usually didn’t get involved unless absolutely necessary, and the definition of “absolutely necessary” fluctuated from day to day, from platoon to platoon. The soldiers handed out lottery slips in a first-come, first-serve fashion starting twelve hours before the interviews began. When they ran out of slips, they locked the gates.
A pair of portable chemical toilets constituted the beginning and the end of the government-sponsored amenities, and those were normally rendered unusable within the first hour. Anyone was free to leave the pen, but if you left, you didn’t get back in. Abandoned spots fell to those on a waiting list, those ringing the pen like vultures.
As Ben wove through the waiting throngs of nameless, faceless strangers who just wanted to work again, he felt scores of eyes on him, the burning envy, the anguish, the hate of those holding higher lottery numbers, most of whom would leave today with nothing. He didn’t begrudge them these feelings because he’d felt them as well, but he wasn’t experiencing any survivor’s guilt either. You didn’t make it far these days by feeling sorry for other people.
The foreman nodded imperceptibly toward Ben before turning and making his way toward the small corrugated trailer at the north end of the cage. Ben hurried to catch up, falling in step behind the man. The foreman was a big fellow with an easy way about him, confident in his place in this new world.
“Your number?” he asked.
Ben handed him the slip of paper, stamped with the numeral 4, which had been issued to him upon his arrival at the camp. The man scanned it with a handheld electronic wand, and the machine emitted a satisfying beep upon confirming that Ben’s ticket was genuine.
“You got your papers, right?”
“Yes, right here,” he said, unzipping his backpack and removing the folder. He offered his papers toward the man, who simply waved them off.
“Wait until you’re inside.”
Ben closed the backpack, and they walked in silence as they covered the distance to the doublewide trailer. The aluminum siding glinted under the glare of the floodlights, the familiar U.S. Department of Reconstruction & Recovery logo emblazoned on the side. The ubiquitous seal, which had made its debut a few months after the Panic, consisted of a magnificent bald eagle in the foreground with a bright orange sun peeking out just behind its head. Ben had once wondered how they’d managed to come up with a logo so quickly, and he decided that maybe they’d had one all along, part of a contingency plan that had been drawn up, considered, revised, approved and then stuck in a drawer somewhere.
That is, at least, until they’d been faced with the question of What the hell do we do now?
Well, for starters, we’ve got this kick-ass logo we can use!
To his left stood the ruined shell of the Walmart, the store’s marquee still identifiable despite missing both letter A’s. A fire had consumed the building at some point, the edges of the doorways blackened with soot, as if smudged by the hands of a child giant. The burned-out chassis of an Army vehicle remained lodged in the front entrance. Its tires were gone, as was the canvas top. The devastation never got easier to look at, stark reminders of those terrible months three years ago when all seemed lost.
The foreman checked his watch as they reached the trailer. The place was quiet but for the rattle of an air-conditioner unit protruding from a side window like a cancerous growth. On the far side of the trailer, two yellow school buses bearing the words U.S. Department of Reconstruction & Recovery idled in the old drive-thru lane. A pair of soldiers walked the perimeter of the trailer, their rifles gripped tightly in their hands.
“You’ve got another five minutes or so,” he said. He lit a cigarette.
Ben pressed down each of his thumbnails firmly, a nervous tic of his. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Nervous?” the foreman asked, blowing smoke out through his nostrils.
“Yeah,” Ben said. “First time I’ve made it inside.”
“Just try and relax,” he said. “They’re looking for healthy, stable people for these jobs. There’s two dozen openings today. As long as you don’t piss yourself in there, you should be fine.”
“What’d you do before?” the man asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “I haven’t worked in a while.”
“I mean before before,” the foreman said. “Before the Panic.”
“Oh, before before,” he said. “Right.”
Before before, Ben thought. When America had spent its days watching YouTube videos and going to farmers’ markets and arguing about climate change.
“Lawyer,” Ben said, hoping the guy would drop this line of discussion. He didn’t want to talk about the Before Before or the Time Before That either. He spent enough time thinking about it. Most days it was all he thought about.
The foreman seemed to find this amusing and began cackling with delight, a big explosive thing that burst out of him, as if Ben had stepped on a laugh mine. He dropped his cigarette to the ground and crushed it with his boot.
“Damn lawyers,” he said, a sudden edge to his voice. “Bet you’re not used to this kind of cattle call. Golf and cocktail parties and strippers for you lawyer types.”
“No, sir,” Ben said, his heart clapping against his ribs like a frightened puppy trapped in a cage. He was terrified that he was blowing his chance. “I just want to work.”
Just then, the door to the trailer burst open, and a soldier emerged, dragging a thin man behind him. The man’s name was Milton; he’d gotten to the site a few moments before Ben and had drawn Ticket No. 3. He was a nervous fellow, twitchy, talking nonstop until the interviews had begun. The soldier, the name Kendrick stitched to his fatigues, had Milton by the lapels of his dirty work shirt. With his M4 rifle slung over his shoulder, Kendrick dragged Milton, who had let his legs go limp and seemed hell-bent on making his eviction from the trailer as complicated as possible, down the steps.
“Hey, fuck you!” Milton was barking, twisting and turning like a child refusing his medicine. “A monkey can do this job! I just want to work! Look at me!”
“No Reds,” Kendrick said. “You know the rules.”
The soldiers outside rushed over to help their comrade, but before they could get there, Milton cleared his throat and fired a loogie directly into the soldier’s face. That was that. With fresh spittle on his face, rife with only-God-knew-what pathogens, Kendrick unslung his rifle and drove the butt of the rifle directly into Milton’s stomach, doubling the man over. As Milton struggled back to his feet, moaning, Kendrick rotated the rifle and aimed it directly at him.
“Take this asshole into custody,” Kendrick barked. He turned his attention back to Milton. “Get your hands up.”
“You ruptured my spleen!”
The foreman took Ben by the arm and the two of them eased away from the scene. Not breathing, not making a sound, Ben stared at the barrel of Kendrick’s weapon, a steel snake hovering in the air. They were no more than ten feet away from Milton, just a few steps behind the soldier.
Milton remained rooted to his spot, not giving an inch. He looked each of the three soldiers in the face, and then he swung his gaze over toward Ben. Their eyes locked, and in Milton’s, Ben saw nothing. Just a total absence of light and hope and anything that once might have been good and pure in his life. Ben blinked and looked away, focusing his gaze on one of the school buses. This wasn’t his problem.
But from the corner of his eye, he saw Milton’s shoulders sag, about as perfect a case study in body language as there ever was, a man who’d just watched his very last straw flutter away, a child’s helium balloon caught on a thermal and disappearing from sight.
Milton’s body tensed, leaning forward ever so slightly, and then he bull-rushed the soldier, a manic howl erupting from the depths. Kendrick squeezed off a short burst from his rifle directly into Milton’s chest. It was a little thing, but a terrible thing all the same. A dark stain bloomed on Milton’s shirt like a dark flower portending an ominous future. He crashed to the ground in a heap, and he died there in the parking lot of a Taco Bell. Behind him, the crowd buzzed loudly, but they remained docile, conscious of the heavy guns that would be loosed upon them at the slightest provocation.
“Clean this piece of shit up,” Kendrick said to his comrades. Then he looked over at Ben and said: “You. Let’s go.”
Ben could barely move, his eyes locked on Milton’s body. He willed himself to take a step forward, and Kendrick searched him, pawing through his bag, confiscating his knife.
“Well, counselor,” the foreman said, his voice devoid of emotion, as though he watched soldiers kill unarmed civilians every day. Hey, perhaps he did. He clapped Ben on the shoulder. “You’re up.”
Ben’s knees nearly buckled with fear as he climbed the three steps to the screen door, Kendrick trailing close behind. He took a deep breath and briefly considered hauling ass out of there, but he couldn’t. He’d come too far. He’d invested too much. And certainly, he was better prepared than Milton had been.
It was time to push his chips to the center of the table.