I pulled my blanket tightly around my body and pushed myself through the flap of my tiny tent. Dozens of flashing pictures gazed down at me from the buildings surrounding the tent city, assaulting my every sense and begging me to buy the newest and most improved foot creams.
“Winter is coming, and with winter comes fewer baths and infrequent clothing changes. Fight the infection now before it starts!” cried one panel while another explained that “Germ fighting is your duty! As aspiring citizens, you must all do your part to fight bacterial invasions. Do your part! Wear a mask! Wear a PRYFLEX brand mask!”
“Feh. PRYFLEX. What the Hell is PRYFLEX anyways?” asked Chigger, the undernourished, elderly, Asiatic man that was in the tent next to mine. He was sitting with his tent flap open, letting his bare brown feet air out in the cool Autumn night air. “Where are you off to, Mousey?” he inquired of me.
“I’m going to the toilets. Want anything?” My offer was purely out of courtesy. I didn’t expect that he would ask me to bring back a roll of toilet paper.
“And see if anyone stashed any magazines in the toilet tank. I need something to read if I’m ever going to get to sleep.” He smiled at me with a toothless, pleading grin. He looked like a child lost in a blanket of skin; the faint light from his electric lantern threw a harsh illumination about him, underscoring each of his wrinkles mercilessly. He watched me as I left to navigate through the unmarked boulevards and twisting, mud filled avenues of the tent city.
A thousand of us lived here; at least that’s what last year’s reckoning predicted. I was certain that over twenty times that filled what used to be a recreational area. Everywhere grass once thrived, a grey and white tent was erected. Each one usually marked the home of a man, but there was a growing number of families inhabiting tents made for just one or two people. As uncomfortable and unforgiving as it was, it was part of the price we all had to pay in order to enter the City.
I could see the spire of the Government Tower, silhouetted by the City’s lights, through the electrified chain-link fence. It stood there, pointing at the moon like a spear; it was the symbol of everything the men of the Tent City dreamed of. It meant protection and security, and it meant a home for our children and wives. It meant a steady job and a comfortable retirement. I let myself get carried away by dreams of the day that I would walk in the tower’s shadow. Yet, my dreams were fleeting. I had to work in the mines for at least another two years before I would have the money to pay for my citizenship and passage through the fence.
“Mousey!” cried a woman with a face streaked with grey dirt. Her eyes were set far apart, separated by a miniscule nose that lurked above a wide, smiling mouth. “I haven’t seen you in days. I was worried you went down a shaft.” She threw her arms around me and generously dropped a kiss on my cheek.
“There’s no shaft that would take me without at least a dollar, Pea.” She laughed at my joke and wrapped her arm around mine as I continued to wend my way to the toilets. Her ratty, knitted green sweater was too large for her, and she was in need of a hair cut, but she had an undeniable beauty. I don’t know if it was something I tricked myself into seeing, but I thought that she had a good spirit. She had a tent of her own that had a tiny group of pink flowers blossoming beside it. It made me happy to know that she didn‘t bounce tent to tent like so many of the young women.
Prostitution was the easiest way for a woman to get coin, but it was also a crime punishable by hanging. The Eastern Fence, where they strung up the criminals, never lacked for tenants. Once a week, the Government sent a squad of policemen through the Tent City to look for any crimes. That was why we seldom kept much in our small tents; some officers would look at a magazine and be able to implicate a resident in a criminal conspiracy.
“I have six months left.” announced Pea, whose full name was Peapod Greene. “And I was thinking that I’d like to take someone with me.” what was visible of her white skin shone in the moonlight as I looked down at her. “What do you think?” she asked without actually making her offer verbally. I was shocked; it wasn’t often that a woman asked a man to marry her. If we were married, I could join her in the City and leave my tent behind.
“I think that I’d like that a lot.” I responded, hoping that my response wasn’t too hasty nor too slow.
“Great. I’ve been talking to Preacher Stalwart about it for a couple of days. I told him how I thought it wasn’t right to leave someone behind, particularly if I had someone that I liked. He helped me sort out some of my feelings and come to a decision. I was actually on my way to check with Chigger in order to find out what happened to you.”
“I had gone down to level twenty, and the supervisor decided that we’d stay under until we reached our quota four times.” I remarked, weariness apparent in my voice.
“I’ve only been to the third level. What’s it like down there?” asked Peapod.
“It’s dark and hot. You feel like the whole world is hanging over your head, just waiting to fall on you.” We walked and talked merrily, then said our good nights as I walked towards the toilets and she walked back to her tent. She was on my mind until I returned to my tent, where I tossed a copy of Wild Fiction at Chigger’s feet. He awoke with a startled snort.
“Took you long enough.” he remarked facetiously as he examined the magazine in the faint light from his lamp. “Oh! This looks promising!” he exclaimed cheerily as he last himself in some story or other. I fastened my tent’s flap and tried to imagine life with Peapod. In the darkness, I started to dream of her. She was making thin, dainty cookies that my sister used to make before the war. She was still wearing her sweater and her face was still dirty, but the rest of the house was perfectly spotless.
The sound of Aluminum poles snapping woke me up, driving me to pull open my tent’s flap and let the early morning light in. A bright light shined in my eyes as a boot crashed into my chest. I tumbled to the ground and found a steel baton driving into my neck. I followed the thin silver shaft of the weapon and saw a black clad soldier looking down at me.
“Stay down, and you will be allowed to go back to your tent. If you fight, I’ll break your throat.” The soldier’s voice, although feminine, had such force and certainty behind it that I simply crumpled under the weight of its words. Three other soldiers had collapsed Chigger’s tent, while a fourth heaved the old man’s lifeless body over his shoulder. With a flick of her wrist, the soldier that was holding me down hid her baton somewhere on her person.
“Do you want to know why we’re taking him?” she said, her voice muffled by her transparent face shield. She had sharp features and piercing eyes. Everything about her seemed lethal. I wanted to ask her what happened, but I knew that I’d be carried away as well. I shook my head and a sinister smile parted her lips, revealing perfect, white teeth. She walked away, leaving me speechless and afraid. I crawled into my tent, but could find no warmth.
In the afternoon, I found Peapod. She was wearing the sweater that she always wore. I told her about Chigger, and she went with me to the Eastern Fence. We found Chigger hanging next to a prostitute that was still struggling to breathe, and the man who had hired her, who had expired long before. The paper that was affixed to Chigger said that he had lied about his age; he was in his one-hundredth year and no longer eligible for a new citizenship. It went on to say that he refused to speak with the soldiers about any crimes he knew about. At the bottom of the sheet, it read:
Lies shall not be tolerated. The Government will never be undermined.
I held onto Peapod’s hand and felt tears coming to my eyes. The soldiers that stood on guard studied us and Peapod warned me to compose myself.
“They’ll think you had something to do with him, that you are some kind of accomplice. Hush.” whispered Peapod, pulling me away from the fence. Chigger was the first friend I had made in the Tent City. He taught me how to thrive there and he listened to me. For five years, we lived next to each other, telling one another our dreams each morning. As he hung there, I walked away, feeling like a traitor.
Six months after his death, I walked into the City as a citizen, with Peapod as my wife. Our names were changed from Mousey and Peapod to Jaime and Pat Greene. It brought a smile to Pat’s face when she found out that I was going to take her last name. We were given an apartment on the 19 district block overlooking Factory Seven, where they manufactured bowls, cups, and other dinnerware.
In my home, I still find myself thinking about the Tent City. I had memories, both good and bad, but I would never forget what I left behind…