by Jeffrey Kulik
It’s hot today, and as I look up at the sun I feel a bead of sweat rolling down the back of my neck. It reminds me of the old times, and I close my eyes for a moment and remember working in the garden behind my house under the same old sun. But, that was a long time ago and things are different now.
I feel a few flakes land on my shoulder so I dust them off. It’s snowing again. At least, that’s what we’ve taken to calling it when the ash flakes come down. It happens a couple of times a week, so we’ve all gotten used to it by now. I pass by the store and see Dr. Maltese, sweeping up the ash in the front doorway.
“Just keeps coming down, huh?” I ask.
He stops sweeping and wipes some ash off his face with a gray handkerchief. “This is getting ridiculous,” he says. “I wasn’t put on Earth to run a corner store.”
“Hey, I didn’t sign up to clean out sewers, but that’s what I’ve been assigned.”
“When I was Director of Parking, I used to sit in a big office and look at spreadsheets on two big computer monitors. I led meetings, shook hands, made decisions, handed out business cards, all of it. I wore a different suit every day of the week!”
“I know. I was there. I wore a suit every day, too.”
It stops snowing and Dr. Maltese looks up into the sky. “I know, I know. I just feel like if I don’t keep saying it, I’ll forget. And it’ll be like I was always this shopkeeper and nothing else.”
“Nobody will forget. We have the archives in the library.”
“The archives. The archives? What’s the point?”
“I don’t know,” I say, shaking my head. “I don’t know anymore.”
A dark cloud moves slowly in front of the sun, briefly enveloping us in an ashy shadow.
“You going to the meeting tonight?”
“Of course. You?”
“What else do we have to do?”
And when the sun reappears, it provides us no comfort.
We meet, as always, in the old library. There are new posters on the walls of the main entranceway. Dave does an excellent job rotating the artwork, even though we are quickly running out of resources. We may one day starve to death, but Dave will always have new, unseen poster prints and big metal clips with which to affix them to the wall.
“Hey Dave,” I say, adjusting my eyes to the dim light inside the old library. We meet by candlelight now. We had started out with enough natural gas to make our own electricity which kept the whole place illuminated at night, but now we are conserving it to use to run the baseboard heaters in our office homes when winter comes.
I had once begged for a corner office with windows on two sides. Now, I’m glad I have just the one cold glass pane when it gets cold out. The drafts can be real killers.
“How have you been?” Dave asks, genuinely concerned, as always.
“You remember how I used to say that nothing could be worse than working for this place? Well, turns out I was wrong.”
I always use this line with everybody. It’s become my signature. However, it has become less humorous with each passing day that we are locked up here. No one laughs anymore.
Dr. Lombard takes the podium. Once, he was our Chancellor. Since the attack, he more or less serves as our mayor. Perhaps the better word would be president. This is, after all, our whole world now.
He is surrounded by the crackling light of a score of candelabra. The lighting makes everything he says that much more ominous. “Colleagues,” he begins, arms outstretched.
“Do you believe this guy?” Hank, the carpenter foreman says, poking me in the arm. “He’s no better than you or me or anybody. Why does he get to be up there?”
“The Board of Trustees named him Chancellor,” I answer, dumbly.
“The Board of Trustees abandoned us, Charlie,” Hank whisper-shouts into my ear. “I don’t know why we still listen to this guy. What’s he done for us? Nothing. Give me the word and I’ll rush the stage and take this whole thing over.”
“Just what we need,” I reply. “A dictator.”
“You’ve already got one,” Hank shoots back, pointing at the stage. “You just don’t see it.”
I turn my attention back to Dr. Lombard. He runs his stubby fingers through his gray broom-bristle crew cut. He speaks to us through chapped lips. His skin seems so delicate now, almost translucent in places. “We’ve been together through the best of times and the worst of times…”
“Don’t remember the best,” Hank posits. I shush him and continue listening.
“And, after the gas, when all seemed to be lost, we came together as a University family. I want you all to know how proud I was of all of you. What could have been chaos, what could have been an even greater tragedy, became a time of unity.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Miss Molloy, the head of our de facto nursing and medical care group, seated next to me, sneers.
“And, that is why, my friends and colleagues, that tomorrow, I will be making a journey outside of the fence.”
The room hushes to silence.
I look over at Miss Molloy, but she is staring straight ahead, mouth agape.
The next day, it is cold. These strange shifts in temperature are common now, and I take this one with the usual grain of salt. Mr. Conroy, who was once a high-level business manager with Central Administration, pounds determinedly on a rusty spigot which emerges from a mossy brick wall at the bottom of a decrepit lecture hall building which is now used as a makeshift sanitarium. The sanitarium is filled with those of us who had children or other family outside the walls when we were sealed in. The mothers moan for their children, the men for their wives, the students for their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. Some of our ranks never did acclimate to our new world.
“Did you hear what he said last night?”
“I was there, Charlie. We all heard him.”
“I know. I just can’t get over it.”
Mr. Conroy stands and wipes his hands on the lapels of what was once a very nice silk suit jacket. “Look. First of all, there’s no guarantee he’s even going to get through the wall. Who is he, David Copperfield? Second of all, let’s say he does get out. Then what? If what they tell us is even remotely true, he’ll be shot dead by the police in no time. I still love the old goof, but he’s a grown man and if he wants to get killed, I say let him. I’m waiting until they give us the all clear.”
“If there was going to be an all clear, don’t you think we’d have heard it by now?”
Mr. Conroy laughs. “You sound like those conspiracy nuts down by Fillmore Hall. Our alarm alert system didn’t work before the gas. No, I’m waiting for a bunch of soldiers to come in here and let us know its safe out there.”
The gas attack happened three years ago. In my mind, I’m sure they’ve already sealed our fates.
I take a walk to the police station. They have a deep supply of dried food that they were saving for an emergency preparedness demonstration before the gas. Luckily, we had a team of expert food chemists on staff that could attest to the safety of the dried food after the incident. We have had rationing, no doubt, but I still have enough coupons in my wallet to last me another two years. What comes after that, I try not to think about about.
Dr. Foreman is sitting in a squeaky metal office chair behind a desk stacked with papers, working by candlelight. “What do you want?” he snaps at me, as the front door shuts behind me.
“I’m here for my ration.”
He leans out of the shadows. “You’re going to run out of those ration tickets if you keep using them like this.”
“Just give me a ration, please.”
“You don’t want to eat the turnips and eggplants they’re growing in the greenhouse?”
“I’m sick of fresh vegetables all the time. I want something that tastes like meat. How about one of those dehydrated Salisbury steaks?”
“I don’t know – let me think about it,” he muses.
Marla Hernandez has been standing in the corner this whole time, unnoticed. She used to be a nutritionist with our Public Health school, but since the accident, she been volunteering as a member of our police force. Two out of the three shifts were home when the event occurred, so we were left with only one shift less those who were out on vacation or leave. Marla was one of the first to volunteer to fill the void. There weren’t enough uniforms, so the one she was wearing was less than ideal. Meant for a man, and large man at that, her slender frame got lost in the billowy blue shirt. But her demeanor helped assert her authority.
“Give the man his dehydrated Salisbury steak, Dr. Foreman,” she demands.
“I told you to call me Chief!” he shouts back.
“Who died and made you Chief?”
“Oh, yeah.” I add. “He was a hell of a guy.”
“Just shut up and take your rations,” Marla says, handing me an oddly-shaped lump covered with aluminum foil. She grabs one of my ration tickets and sends me on my way.
I take a long walk around the perimeter of the campus. I remember when we had students coming in and out of here at all hours of the day and night. I remember when I would go home each night to my empty apartment. I wonder if there’s a part of me that likes it better this way, the new way.
I remember the day it happened. It was bright and clear, which are always the most ominous days to me. First, there was a horrible buzzing from all our phones. Everyone’s pockets and briefcases were suddenly alive with dread. Then the sky turned black. We all turned to our phones and computers for guidance, but all we got were confusing reports. After a few minutes of panic, we all started walking out of our buildings, looking to each other to make some sense out of the situation. We moved as a group to the three main entrances. But, the soldiers had already sealed us in. The gates were closed.
Our phones worked for a couple of days after that, and we would meet in big groups in the quad to try to figure things out. For a while, we thought that maybe war had broken out, or that somebody had finally dropped the bomb. We didn’t know. The news reports were vague and pointlessly incendiary. Then, we thought it might have been some kind of chemical leak. We were trapped inside here for our safety, until they could clean up the contamination. The news anchors were no help. The stories were jumbled and confused. The options, so it seemed, were limitless.
It was the College of Liberal Arts that figured it out. They did air tests, soil tests, all kinds of tests, and they determined that there had been some kind of poison gas cloud over our region. None of us seemed particularly affected health-wise, but they said the effects might be long-lasting. They were probably sealing us in until they could tell how sick we really were. They didn’t want us causing an outbreak.
A few of us tried to test the gates and the fences, but the bright lights from the soldiers’ trucks parked just outside deterred us. Eventually, we all got used to the new way. Well, most of us did anyway, and we began to forge on.
Mankind is resilient, especially public university employees. We had long been trained to do less with more, to expect the worst and to improvise with impunity. We were ready for this. When the electricity turned off, Dr. Friedberg, the head of Campus Utilities, found a way to make our own using our natural gas reserves. The ladies who ran the goth rock fan club had a huge stockpile of candles, and the Department of Chemistry had a huge supply of lighters and lighter fluid. We made do.
Still, the fence haunts us. It looks like any other fence, really. Sometimes, I like to look at it and imagine a big open gate with people walking freely in and out of campus. But, those days have long passed. I was always told that when they built the University, it was a primarily a commuter school, and so they would close the gates every night and lock the whole place down. I suppose somebody much higher up also knew that story and took full advantage after the gas.
I used to go to school here, before I graduated, and they hired me on full-time. I learned all about the unethical experiments that used to abound on human subjects. I feel like our lives behind the fence are being recorded in some kind of study log. I assume there is outrage as to all of our whereabouts and some kind of big cover up. In my heart, I know they’ve all written us off.
I walk through the open front doors of the campus greenhouse. The young men and women inside are digging up the latest crop of turnips. I overhear them talking as I approach.
“Do you think he’s really going to do it?”
“He’s a fool. He’s an old fool.”
“Well, if he’s a fool, then so am I.”
“I could have told you that.”
I approach them, still holding the dehydrated Salisbury steak. “Excuse me. Are you talking about the Chancellor?”
They stop their work and look at me with sour faces. I have interrupted them. “Can we help you?”
“I need some turnips.”
A young lady with taped-together black-framed glasses stands up and sighs, annoyed. “Do you have your turnip card?”
I produce it.
She sighs again and robotically states, “As you know, you are entitled to one turnip a week, and with each turnip, we will punch another hole in your card. You may not exceed one turnip a week and this is subject to change based on availability. Do you understand?”
I nod. This is boilerplate stuff.
She places a big, heavy turnip into a brown paper bag for me.
“So?” I ask.,
She grimaces. “So, what?
“So, do you think he’s going to do it?”
“Who cares? We all know there’s nothing out there. He’s just another smug, sanctimonious patrician doing whatever he wants. When the phone signals cut off, I made my peace with it. This is our home now. Here’s your turnip. Have a nice day.”
As I walk out, I see a crowd gathering by the fence. I know now that it is time. Time moves strangely here behind the walls. All of us spectators, we huddle together, scared and confused. I look up and see that old familiar face preparing himself. I am nervous for him. I clear my throat.
I watch now, with the rest, all of us, all different, all trapped here together, as he climbs the wall. He ascends the ladder slowly, tentatively, and for a moment we think maybe he’s lost his nerve. But, in the moment when he throws his legs over the top parapet it becomes real. He stops there at the top, looking out at the outside world as if for the first time. As I hear him drop down onto the other side, I feel my heart sink in my chest. I remember all the years I spent jockeying for position, undermining my co-workers, vying for my boss’ attention, all of it. I think about my life inside these walls in all its totality. And now the most alive I’ve ever felt is watching with envy as a middle-aged man in a suit scales a short brick wall.
About the Author:
Jeffrey Kulik is a lifelong Chicagoan and a career civil servant who has previously been published in Arcturus and Public Organization Review.