(The entire short story in one post.)
It Starts With an Earthquake
The earthquake struck at 2:34 in the morning in some far-off country Sheldon wasn’t entirely convinced was a real place and not just an elaborate con by geographers. Lemuria, or maybe Liplodia. Or nearby Diplodia. He heard about it on the 6 AM news while drinking his morning coffee–scientists had recently determined that the net health benefits of coffee outweighed its downsides, so he drank the recommended one cup a day of bitterness.
The pink-haired news anchor began weeping beautiful tears as footage of children being pulled from Diplodica’s ruins rolled in. “With the Aplodican hospital system overloaded and little hope for the people still buried in the wreckage, officials estimate the death toll will top a million by nightfall. 15 million people are now homeless; 45 million have no water or electricity. 10 million children–”
Sheldon flicked off the news. Emotional distress was bad for the heart. He was surprised they even let humans report the news anymore, given that they’d developed perfectly good robots who could analyze the news for them without incurring any stress.
The TV flicked itself back on. Of course. It was set to deliver 30 minutes of news a day, because the politically aware live longer than the politically unaware. Well, that didn’t count during a disaster, did it? He flicked it off again.
It turned back on.
Sheldon turned away to begin preparing his perfectly balanced nutritional breakfast while the pretty news anchor wept over the fate of Alodica’s orphans.
The news mercifully winked off as a call came in. His grandmother’s face replaced the pretty news anchor’s. “Have you heard the news?”
“Yes, Gram.” Sheldon quickly switched off the fox-girl filter. It just looked weird on his grandmother.
“15 million children without homes, can you imagine?” Her eyes looked red.
“Yes, Gram.” He drank his nutritional slurry. “Try not to worry about it. You know worrying isn’t good for your heart–”
“Don’t tell me about my heart,” she snapped. “Go call Minister Graham. He’s your representative. I’ve already texted you the information. Tell him you support Proposition 1452 for the immediate aid and relief of Laodicans, no, demand that he immediately support Proposition 14–”
“Gram, it’s okay. Calm down.”
“Young man, I will not calm down until you promise me that you will not just let those poor children suffer–”
“All right, all right. I’ll write to the Minister. Have you had your vitamins?”
“Yes of course.” She frowned in annoyance. “I’m not five, you know.”
“Yes, you’re 85 years old and as you know–”
“Just call the Minister before those children die, young man. It’s your duty.” The screen went black.
Birds and Snakes and Aeroplanes
After a murderous quantity of dickering in the Senatorial House (Minister Graham was concerned about inadequate health funding for the nation’s hospitals), the first airplane load of Laostitian orphans arrived to universal applause. The cheering crowds waved banners with “We love you” written in a dozen languages (hopefully whatever language the Blaostatians spoke was among them, but no one seemed really sure) as each child disembarked. Sheldon watched the festivities remotely, because crowds were dangerous to your health. He expected the government to move in quickly to break up such a large gathering, but the police were oddly missing.
As each child was processed, stamped, and passed to a waiting family that had volunteered to foster the newcomers, Sheldon felt an unusual sensation in his chest. At first he thought it was the coffee affecting his heart, but after the screen switched to a live feed of the pretty news anchor hugging orphans, he realized it was something else: pride. His society had done something good. He had done something good. These children would have great lives.
The math was simple. People in his country enjoyed an average life expectancy of 88 years. The average life expectancy in Baostatia was only 68 years. One million Baodatian orphans would, therefore, gain 20 million—
“Can you believe it?” His friend James’s voice blared into the room.
“Volume, James!” shouted Sheldon, covering his ears.
“Sorry, sorry.” James fiddled with his microphone. They had been friends since middle school, when James had caught Sheldon trying to sneak into the girls’ room, then used this information to blackmail him into playing video games with him. “Can you believe it? They’re importing an entire army.”
“What are you talking about?” Sheldon set down his breakfast.
“Ew,” said James. “How do you eat that stuff?”
“Nutritional slurry is ethically sourced and 100% balanced nutrition.”
“It’s 50% cricket.”
“Ethically sourced crickets,” said Sheldon.
“I only eat tofu, like a real man,” said James.
“Everyone knows tofu is full of phytoestrogens that mess with your endocrine system, dude. Just eat the bugs.”
“Like I need an endocrine system. Who would bring kids into this world, anyway?” said James. “But whatever. It doesn’t matter when the government is importing an army of foreign mercenaries to replace us.”
Sheldon sighed and put his dishes in the sink. James always talked about politics but never watched the news, which made him frustratingly wrong about everything. “They’re children, James. Orphans.”
“Children?” James turned his camera to zoom in on his own TV screen. Grainy images of disembarking refugees flickered at an angle. “Do those look like children? That guy is at least thirty years old.”
“One, that’s not how you share videos and two, I need to get ready for work.” Sheldon put on his jacket and checked his watch. Five minutes to go.
“Oh, sure, rub it in my face, mister actually has a job.”
“Yes, I do, and it’s important.” Sheldon picked up his briefcase. He did IT for a major union, making sure important worker safety documentation didn’t get stolen. James was still hoping to make it big as gaming blogger, but he had his doubts about this plan.
“Fine, I’ll text you. the video. You can watch it during lunch. I’ve got a PDF about Lower Paodatian crimes stats you need to read, too. Those aren’t kids, Sheldon. You’re being lied to. Something really weird is going on.”
“All right, I’ll watch it later. Got to go.” He flicked off the camera and headed out. Of course he wouldn’t; he never watched James’s weird conspiracy videos, but he pretended to because James was basically a good friend.
Sheldon took the elevator down to the ground floor. Perfect timing; his rideshare arrived just as he exited the building. Now that everyone in the city had switched from owning private gas guzzlers to sharing autonomous electrics, pollution and traffic had almost entirely disappeared.
The streets buzzed with low-key excitement, people milling about with no obvious purpose. They seemed as happy about the orphans’ arrival as Sheldon had felt twenty minutes before.
A bell bringed as a bicycle approached. Sheldon frowned. Biking was dangerous. Over a thousand people a year died in bicycle accidents, and they messed with the cars’ algorithms. Why did the government even let people ride bicycles in the city? He stared angrily as the bicyclist rolled past, legs pumping idiotically, red hair streaming like a banner. Her green eyes met his and he was struck like a bird with an arrow.
Sheldon was in love.
Eye of the Hurricane
“Why do I have to learn this?” Nassim held up a cucumber. “Pick-el.” He waved the produce at the bodega’s refrigerated case and rattled off the names of the rest of the vegetables in his native Upper Paodatian. “Tafaha, zanahoria, ikhowe, filberts, skirlie neeps. Already good names. What learn for? You don’t even eat veg-e-tables. You eat sludge.”
Sheldon took a deep, calming breath before responding. Yes, studies showed that volunteers lived longer than non-volunteers, but he was beginning to wonder if working with abandoned puppies extended your lifespan more than teaching English to cranky, chain-smoking, 25 year old “teenagers” with two wives and 3 children back in Greater Paolotia.
The bell over the bodega’s door dingled as it opened and the redhead from apartment 57-E swept in. Sheldon didn’t know her name, but he had nicknamed her “Karen.”
“Um. Well. Yes. Obviously you should drink the nutritional shakes.” He picked up a large jar of fruity flavored powder and shook it at Nassim. “Optimally balanced nutrition with no salmonella.”
Nassim opened a refrigerated case and pulled out a transparent tub of glistening chicken livers and shook it back at him. “Nutrition better-er.” Sheldon thought he might vomit.
Karen had picked up a basket and was poking through the collection of mustards and chocolates displayed near the bodega’s entrance. This location had been a regular convenience store offering a variety of nutritional beverages and first aid supplies, but after a terrible hurricane decimated the Jaifijian Archipelago three months ago, a refugee family had moved in and transformed it. Sheldon and Nassim were shopping there because he had thought an opportunity to actually use English in the field would provide more motivation than the classroom, but he now realized had been overly optimistic.
“Dude, why don’t you just talk to her?” Nassim dropped the tub of livers into the basket.
Sheldon turned quickly. “Come on, let’s check out. You can practice numbers.”
“You practice. You like her; go say hi.”
“I do not.” He put the jar of fruity powder in his basket. Sheldon picked up a box of granola at random and stuffed it into his basket. “It’s just, it’s not safe at night anymore because of the gang war, and the police confiscated her bike so she has to walk home, so I keep an out just in case something goes wrong–”
“Talk talk talk. All you do. No liver, no wonder. Just go talk to her.”
“I can’t do that. That’s sexual harassment. What if she doesn’t want to be talked to? What if she’s deaf and talking to her is a microaggression? I could accidentally traumatize–hey, where are you going?”
“It is not hard.” Nassim picked up a bunch of carrots. “Watch.” He walked up to her, smiling. “Excuse me, miss.” He pulled out the carrots. “What do you call these… rutabegas?”
Karen smiled. “These are carrots.”
“Care-otes.” Nassim nodded, then pointed to the rest of the produce. “And these?”
“I think those are Zucchini.” She laughed.
“Ah, zucchini, thank you.” He hefted a bag. “You like, zucchini? Good?”
“Oh, I’ve never had zucchini. I just have the nutritional shakes.”
“Never had zucchini?” Nassim put another bag in his basket. “I grill. Make delicious. Delicious! You will love it. Come, 8 o’clock.” He put down the basket and pulled out his phone. “Give me your number and I text you address.”
Sheldon thought he could feel something popping in his inner ear as Karen pulled out her phone and, laughing, agreed to dinner. He didn’t even remember to put the tub of chicken livers back in the refrigerated case before paying for his food and marching angrily into the street.
“Hey, dude.” Nassim caught up with him, smoking already. “See? Easy.”
“What? No!” Sheldon gestured wildly. “Not easy–”
“Whoa.” Nassim caught his arm. “Dinner tomorrow. 8’o clock. You come. We have party.”
Sheldon set down his bag of groceries in shock. “Me?”
“You.” Nassim fished the tub of livers out of the bag and put it in his own. “You come; you meet girl.”
If there was a party, it was happening somewhere in Sheldon’s guts and using his stomach as a trampoline, but he managed to croak out a “Yeah, sure,” before running away.
Listen to Yourself Churn
Sheldon almost stayed home. He had showered, dressed, picked out an appropriate gift (a wireless wall lamp), and made it to the lobby of his apartment building when the familiar banners flanking the exit caught his eye:
Act so your actions
May be a Law
For the whole World
Before you go
Are you being safe?
And, of course, the national motto:
You Only Die Once
Did he really need to go out? No, of course not. Was it safe? Well, every outing carried risk; it was difficult to get into a car accident while sitting on the couch, watching TV.
Sheldon had one foot back in the elevator when his phone began ringing. A phone call? Who used phones to call anyone anymore?
“Sheldon!” James’s voice came through loud and much too clear. “I tried the telelink, but you’re not at home. Don’t tell me you’ve gone out–”
Sheldon punched the up button as the elevator left without him. “Well, actually–”
“Have you gone mad? Don’t you know there’s a gang war going on?”
“James, I’m not going to a war, it’s a party–”
“You’re going to a shooting, that’s where you’re going. You know crime rates in Quodatian neighborhoods are astronomical–”
“It’s Greater Quodatian, James. You have to remember these things now,” Sheldon cut in. “And the crime rates are only high because so many of them are unemployed, traumatized refugees. They have to learn English before they can get good jobs, which is why I’ve been volunteering–”
“Volunteering your hide, more like. Just go home and be safe.”
“It is safe, James. I’ll go and prove it.” Sheldon hung up the phone and marched out the door.
He realized immediately upon arrival that he was wrong. He should have stayed home and read up on investment strategies; instead strangers were belching weed in his face and piling half-raw hamburger meat onto his flimsy paper plate. Nassim was flipping zucchinis and chicken livers on the grill while children screamed and threw fireworks across the apartment’s courtyard.
“Nassim, how did you get AB approval?”
“What?” Nassim plunked a bottle of beer next to his plate.
“The Apartment Board. They have to approve–” He winced as a firework went off. “My Apartment’s Board requires three kinds of insurance, a $1,000 deposit and two months advanced notice before they’ll approve a party.”
“I don’t know ‘Apartment Board,’” said Nassim. “I just got grill, invite neighbors.”
Sheldon was about to object when Nassim broke into a grin, threw down his spatula, and ran across the apartment courtyard to greet more guests.
A minute later, one of the burgers caught on fire. Sheldon knew that unlicensed operation of a grill was a misdemeanor punishable with up to a year in jail, but he also knew that he had to take action fast to save everyone near the conflagration. He grabbed the spatula and began whacking the burger, hoping to put out the flames.
He couldn’t tell if things were supposed to be smoking or not. Was that how grills were supposed to work? Well, Nassim had been flipping things, so he tried flipping things. One of the burgers disintegrated, falling through the bars. Oh no. This was why Sheldon didn’t have a grilling license. You were supposed to have a grilling license, grilling disaster insurance, carbon offsets, and get tri-annual grill inspections before you could even think about using a grill, and here he stood with only a spatula between the open flames and the lives of hundreds of innocent families who lived inside the building–
“Hey, Sheldon, get this lady a burger.”
“Oh! Kar–I mean, hi.” He just barely managed to slide one of the burgers and a zucchini onto probably-not-actually-named-Karen’s plate. “Nassim, you can’t leave me here, I don’t have a grilling license, and–” More fireworks popped off. “Why are they juggling fireworks!?”
Nassim laughed. “Just relax. Have fun. You only live once, you know.”
The Ladder starts to Clatter With a Fear of Heights
Somehow Karen (who was actually named Lauren), Nassim, and Sheldon ended up sitting across from each other at the rickety picnic benches in Nassim’s courtyard. Lauren and Nassim laughed over some obscure joke while Sheldon poked at his food. The burgers were simultaneously burned (literally) on the outside, raw on the inside, and absolutely disgusting.
Nassim elbowed him. “Go ahead. Try it.”
“I don’t… I don’t eat cows,” said Sheldon.
“It’s only part of a cow,” said Lauren, halfway through her own burger. “Ohmigod, this is delicious.”
He eyed the spicy chicken livers. There was no way any of this was going in his mouth.
“You have to try it,” said Lauren. She had speared a chicken liver with her fork and was staring at him expectantly. Sheldon poked his burger. How was he supposed to hold this thing? Maybe he could take just one bite–for politeness’s sake–and be done with it.
The burger crumbled as he bit into it, half melting in his mouth. This was… amazing. Yes, parts of it were burned and parts of it were crusty and most of it he definitely did not want to think about, but there was this juice and this flavor and… he couldn’t even describe it. “I think this is the most wonderful thing I have ever eaten,” said Sheldon.
“Sure beats slurry, doesn’t it?” She popped one of the livers in her mouth. “Oh, that’s spicy.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d say that,” he tried to mutter around the burger. “Slurry has its benefits. It’s ethically sourced, carbon neutral, doesn’t require murdering sentient creatures…” The burger disappeared and he found himself compulsively licking his fingers. What the hell was he doing? He grabbed a napkin and wiped them clean like a civilized person.
“I can’t say much for the liver,” said Lauren, “but the zucchini is worth a try.”
“Right, zucchini.” He eyed the grilled strips of vegetables. He was probably going to get cancer from all of these carcinogens. “So, uh. I think we live in the same building. I see you heading to work sometimes.”
“And at the bodega,” she said.
“Oh. Yeah.” He took a bite of the zucchini. Whoah. Did choking hazards always taste this good, or was nearly burning all of your food to cinders a form of magic? “I volunteer on Sundays, teaching English. We were doing a field trip to practice using English in a real-world environment.”
“Really?” Lauren looked impressed.
He decided to chance one of the spicy livers.
Some things really were disgusting.
“I told you,” she said.
“Yes.” His mouth was on fire. He desperately wanted to spit it out, but Nassim and Lauren were both watching him. Where were the drinks?
He grabbed the beer. He didn’t want beer; he knew beer was terrible and caused thousands of deaths per year, but it was the only drink on the table and he needed something to wash down the liver.
That was a mistake.
Beer and liver, he realized, were acquired tastes. Thankfully the kids screaming through the courtyard decided to set off a pile of fireworks, distracting Lauren and Nassim.
“What about you? What do you do?” asked Sheldon. He tried to lean nonchalantly against the table. He hoped she hadn’t seen him gagging.
“I work in medical sales.” Somehow she took a sip of the beer. How did she do it? “Ventilators, syringes, masks, PPE–you can never have too much, that’s what I say.”
“Definitely.” He tried to match her sip. If she could drink it, he could too, right? “I’m in IT–data protection. Do you work nearby? I used to see you riding your bike in the mornings.”
“Oh, no, I don’t. I’m was just trying to save money, until those pigs took my bike away. Now I’m stuck paying or walking.” Sip.
“Well, at least you’re safer, now.”
“Safer?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Well, yes. A thousand people a year die in bicycle accidents.”
Her bottle thunked against the table. “You know, there was a study, in China. People were randomly given either a car or a bicycle and then weighed a year later. The people who got the car gained an average of 20 pounds a year over the bicyclists. Six hundred and forty seven thousand people died of heart attacks last year. People who don’t ride bikes will just switch to riding in cars, gain weight, and die.”
Sheldon took a strong drink. “But there was a terrible accident just last month. An electric AI collided with a bicyclist–that’s why the council finally outlawed riding on city streets. The bikes are too small; the AIs can’t see them properly.”
“If the AIs can’t see the bikes, then get rid of the AIs,” fumed Lauren. “Riding bikes is healthier, would save thousands of lives–”
This was a ridiculous argument. “The autonomous cars have cut accident deaths tenfold. You could save thousands of lives just by giving people stationary bikes to ride inside their apartments, where it’s safe–”
“I bet you can’t even ride a bike.” Lauren stood up, angry.
Shit. Sheldon realized he’d fucked up. “That’s not true. I can, I can.” Well, he had ridden one once, at his aunt’s in the country. When he was ten.
“You don’t understand because you haven’t done it.”
Nassim stood up, waving his hands. “Wait. Wait. Calm down. It is not problem.” He pointed to a bike rack in the back of the courtyard. “You can use mine.”
Sheldon stood, not sure if the alcohol was affecting him. Alcohol was known to make people make terrible decisions, and he realized just after he spoke that he had made a big one. “All right. I’ll prove it.”
The courtyard rack was filled with what could only be described as crackhead bikes: no paint, mismatched wheels, and only a fifty/fifty chance of handlebars. At least it was legal to ride here, off the street. Nassim pulled a bike out for him. The wheels spun. That was a good sign.
He mounted shakily. This was a terrible idea–he didn’t even have a bicycle license. He almost got off, but Lauren was staring at him, hands on her hips. He pushed off with his feet and fell immediately. A crowd had gathered by the time he got back up. She was laughing. Nassim helped him back on the bike and gave him a shove.
Sheldon found himself moving much faster than he had expected. It was only by some miracle that nothing was directly in front of him; he pedaled madly, terrified of crashing, desperately hoping the steering would take care of itself.
The bike careened down the path, down the hill, out of control, and for one eternal, transcendent moment everything melted away and he felt nothing but pure fear and exhilaration. He was flying.
Then something exploded.
A Wire in a Fire and a Combat Site
Sheldon was released from the hospital four hours later, following two x-rays, a CT scan, and extensive bandaging. James came to pick him up, muttering, “Can I possibly convince you not to kill yourself?” all the way back to his apartment.
“I wasn’t trying to die,” said Sheldon. The nurse said he was very lucky to still have most of his skin after skidding down the street like a human on a cheese grater. The explosion had knocked him off the bike, landed him in a pile of rubble and broken his arm, but thankfully his head was okay and he hadn’t suffered a concussion.
“If I ever fall in love, preemptively institutionalize me,” said James.
The car halted in front of Sheldon’s apartment. “Can you get the door? My arm won’t bend.”
James came around to his side of the car and helped him into the building. “They’re calling it a terrorist attack, you know.”
“Calling what?” Sheldon hobbled slowly toward the elevators. Most of his left side was bandaged. He leaned against the wall and pressed the Up button. He didn’t feel like taking the stairs today, cardiovascular health or no.
James’s hands twitched when he talked. “The explosion.” He was always jittery, but high explosives made it worse.
“They’re calling a bunch of fireworks a terrorist attack?” The elevator arrived with a ding.
“Fireworks?” James punched the buttons for him. “The whole parking garage exploded. You’re lucky you didn’t get crushed. They’re saying thermonitrite, maybe a fertilizer bomb. A big one.”
Sheldon sighed. “James, you don’t even watch the news. It was just some kids playing with fireworks.”
“Shit, everyone knows they don’t put the real news on the news. They don’t want people to panic–there‘d be carnage.” James held the door when they reached his floor. “Anyway, it didn’t have anything to do with that party you went to–it’s the gang war between the Jaifijians and Quotidians. Someone was trying to blow up a rival gang leader and took out the whole parking garage with him.”
Sheldon shook his head and sank onto the couch. “Thanks for bringing me home.”
“No problem, man,” said James. He had gone into the kitchen to rummage around in the cupboards. He returned a few minutes later with drinks for both of them. “Here. Drink up. Hydration is important. I brought over a list of nootropics and other supplements my gym bros recommend for healing after an accident and put put it up on your refrigerator. Be sure to pick up the L-glutamate tomorrow before work. You can mix it with your slurry.”
“Okay.” Sheldon didn’t really feel like talking, so they turned on the news and drank in silence. James had been right; the parking garage had collapsed. “Why would they do that?” he muttered to himself, so James decided to enlighten him on the history of Lifijian and Western Quotidian race relations.
Sheldon woke the next morning at dawn. His head hurt, his arm was in a cast, and the TV was still on in the living room. He poured coffee in his slurry and ignored the list of instructions James had left for him on the refrigerator. All right, so he’d been dumb. He admitted that. Well, everyone was dumb sometimes. But at least he’d tried.
He went onto the porch to watch the sunrise. Something felt different. Sure, he was in pain, but that wasn’t it. He felt alive.
He drank his coffee and listened to the birds. The news droned in the background, but he didn’t feel like listening. Everything on the TV seemed dull and unconvincing compared to the warm cup in his hand, the bitter taste in his mouth, the sunlight pouring through the clouds and the birds on the railing.
There was something about nearly dying that put the life into you, he realized. He wanted to go back, to ride again. This was an idiotic thought, he knew. He’d just broken his arm riding a bike. But the thought remained.
Of course he couldn’t do anything while his arm was in a cast. He went to work, drank weird-tasting slurry, and watched his daily ration of news. His skin began to heal, making him itch. Bombings were becoming more frequent. Even the news anchors seemed to admit that things weren’t entirely perfect. He felt anxious, but terrorists from Alybia had driven a fertilizer bomb into the Department of Justice and blown it up, killing two thousand people, so who wouldn’t feel anxious?
The president made some impressive speeches from the deck of a CVN-78 aircraft carrier about the importance of Freedom, Safety, and Prosperity. “We must take the fight to our enemies in their homelands so they don’t have a chance to bring their war to ours,” he bellowed, looking very impressive in his camouflage flight suit. Sheldon still felt confused about some of the finer points of the war, since wasn’t even sure where Alydia was on the map, much less why they were in a fight.
James was in his element, calling him daily after work to update him on their movement of troops in Surdistan. Surdistan wasn’t even part of Alydia, but James reassured him that there were important terrorists in Surfistan, too. “We have to strike them wherever they are,” he said. “Wherever they go, we will hunt them down. We will track them to the ends of the earth, no matter the cost–”
“What is the cost of all this?” James checked his bank account. Things were getting expensive. Rent was up, he now had to pay for terrorism insurance, and taxes were going up to pay for the war.
“Only two, maybe 3-4-5 trillion dollars,” said James. “Peanuts, really. Okay, so it’s the size of the entire federal budget, but you can’t put a price on life, Sheldon.”
“No cost is too high?”
“If there’s even a chance we can stop the terrorists and save a life, we have to do it,” said James. “We’ll pay any price.”
Sheldon nodded, but the calculation seemed off. He knew you couldn’t bring back the dead, that he ought to be willing to bear the cost of saving a life, but still, a voice nagged at the back of his head. He wanted to get married someday. He wanted a wife, a house, and children. He lived frugally and saved diligently, but he knew raising a kid cost over $300,000–before college–but he didn’t have anywhere near that much money. Between the accident and the tax increase, he would be lucky if he could save anything this month.
He felt sick of it all, the taste of grit returning to his mouth. What was the point? “I have to go.” He flipped off the telelink and left the apartment. He didn’t really have a destination; he just wanted to go out. To move. To breathe.
The next day he filed the paperwork for a bicycle license, solemnly swore before a Department of Vehicles worker to always wear a helmet and never ride on a road, and bought the best mountain bike his local store had for sale. A cheaper bike might have been just as good, but if this thing was going to be the only protection between him and thousands of rocks, he might as well get the extended warranty and accident protection.
An hour later, Sheldon was riding.
It wasn’t that bad, now that he had real breaks and functional handlebars.
There was a dedicated bike trail at the local park, one of the few places you could legally ride in the city. This was his favorite time of day, when the afternoon sun slanted through the trees like gold and the distant clouds looked like grey mountains. The wheels hummed beneath him, vibrating slightly on the smooth path. He huffed up the hill then coasted down the other side, feeling the wind on his face. He felt himself flowing through them and they through him.
Slurry tasted plain in the morning, but it didn’t matter. He had a plan. After work he returned to the park, building his confidence. On Saturday, he headed to the mountain trails and rode until his legs ached. Yes, it was dangerous. Yes, he fell. Yes, it was an expensive bike, but realistically, he didn’t have the money for kids, anyway, so he might as well spend his savings. (He still didn’t know how Nassim managed to raise three kids on public assistance.) But when he rode he flowed through the mountains and the mountains flowed through him and he felt more alive than he ever had before. At night he dreamed of stars pouring out of the Milky Way and miles melting beneath him.
“Oy mate, you got a license for that bike?”
Sheldon had just unloaded the bike from his Uber and was wheeling it up the path to his apartment when two police officers appeared. One grabbed his bike while the other pulled out a notepad. “We got a call from a lady in your building about a man riding recklessly on the sidewalk.”
“I never ride on the sidewalk–”
“So you’ve been riding in the street?”
“Gotta see that license, buddy.”
“It’s in my bag, I’ll get it for you–”
“No, don’t move. Give me the bag. I’ll get it.”
Sheldon grudgingly handed the officer his bag. After a few minutes of rummaging, they pulled out the license. “This doesn’t look like you.”
“I had a haircut.”
There was shouting and scuffling on the opposite side of the street. Sheldon craned his neck to see around the cars. “Hey, I think something’s going on–”
“We have to confiscate your bike,” said the first officer.
“Riding on the sidewalk, riding in the street, failure to update your license following a personal appearance change–you’re lucky we don’t write you two tickets.”
“But I didn’t–” Sheldon watched sadly as the police wheeled his bike away to their squad car. He looked down at the ticket in his hand. “Dammit.”
The scuffle continued on the other side of the street, unnoticed by the cops. Sheldon stuffed his license, bicycle repair kit, and first aid supplies back in his bag. Who the hell reported him? And why?
Someone screamed on the other side of the street. Sheldon grabbed his bag and darted between the cars. Two guys ran off, leaving a third bleeding on the sidewalk.
“You okay?” The guy’s arm was bleeding pretty badly, so he grabbed a bandage from his first aid kit and started applying pressure.
“Yeah, I think so.” He sat up, rubbing his head.
“You should get to the hospital, get that stitched up.” He waited with the guy until the ambulance came, then went back to his own apartment. At least his first aid kit had been good for something.
It’s the End of the World as we Know it
To add insult to injury, Sheldon found five notarized fines from the Apartment Board when he checked his mail that evening: two for having a “street worthy vehicle” in the apartment, one for damage/dirt to the common areas from his bike’s wheels, one for storing his bike on his balcony, one for ‘reckless endangerment’ and ‘liability’ due to riding a bicycle, and one he couldn’t make heads nor tails of, but seemed to be faulting him for drinking coffee in the mornings.
What could he do? He called the Apartment Board to protest the fines–he didn’t even have a bike anymore–but they insisted that they had security footage and eyewitness testimony from his neighbors of him riding the bike, and that if he didn’t pay, they’d kick him out.
He paid his fines, went to work, filed a complaint with the city about the unjust confiscation of his bike. Maybe in six months he’d get a hearing and the police officers’ body cam footage would exonerate him–if he could get it. It wasn’t really worth hiring a lawyer over a bike, not even a good one.
Without the bike and his trips to the mountains he felt a creeping emptiness, a sense of being dead inside. Lauren suggested a stationary bike, when they met at the bodega and swapped news. James suggested fluoxetine. Sheldon decided to try his apartment’s exercise room. His rent paid for it, after all–and he certainly paid enough rent. Watching TV probably wasn’t bad for you if you were lifting weights at the same time, right?
The stationary bike wasn’t anything like a real bike, but it was something. December rolled around, and he found that riding and lifting helped him get through the dark days. He turned the TV to travel shows and planned for warmer weather, when he’d get a new bike and set out on new trails. He had an idea for a business, selling GPS devices to cyclists so they wouldn’t get lost in the mountains.
One morning in early January he came downstairs and found a notice taped to the door of the exercise room that it was officially closed. He tried calling the apartment office to ask why, but it wasn’t open before nine. That evening he found a notice in his mailbox that the exercise room had been closed due to liability concerns and a week’s worth of fines for having used the “closed” room.
Again he called the Apartment Board, protesting that they couldn’t possibly fine him for using the Exercise Room before they told him it was shut down, and that moreover, use of the room was covered in his rent and therefore they were the ones who owed him, but they were adamant that liability concerns took precedence over his “assumptions” about what his rental agreement did or did not cover. Hadn’t he heard about the accident at Avalon Estates? Someone nearly suffocated when a barbell fell on their neck, and considering the resulting lawsuit and increase in exercise room insurance rates there was just no way they could keep the Exercise Room open.
Outside, January drizzled on, bleak and cold. Inside, Sheldon woke at 4 to sneak down to the exercise room. He and one other resident were the only ones who had ever really used it, and though the card readers had been deactivated, his key still worked on the back lock. He worked out until 6, then showered, dressed, and went to work. What the Board didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, right? As long as he was working out against their orders, they couldn’t be held liable for his injuries, he figured.
“Hey! Hey!” Sheldon was startled out of his reverie by someone banging on the door. “Hey, you’re not allowed to be in there.”
He got cautiously off the stationary bike, wiping his chest with his towel. The door swung open as the building’s night watchman barreled in. He had his walkie talkie out. “I’ve got a 5-9 trespass in the basement. Requesting backup.”
Sheldon held up his hands. “I’m just exercising. I live here. This is the exercise room.”
“This area is off-limits to residents and visitors.” The watchman raised his voice. “I am asking you, once again, to leave or I will have you arrested.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll leave.” Sheldon grabbed his bag. “You don’t need to yell.” He stormed out of the room.
The old lady from the apartment next to his was at the mailboxes, casually pretending to be intensely interested in the back of the box. “Serves you right for putting all of us at risk,” she called after him.
Sheldon punched her door, 5-E, on the way to his apartment. It didn’t do any good, but it felt good. The next day he found the locks changed on the exercise room. The police still hadn’t given his bike back. It was raining and his boss wanted yet another layer of security over their networks that he really thought was just going to drive down productivity by making it more difficult for different departments to coordinate.
Sheldon took a serious look at how much he was paying to live in the city and decided to fuck it all: he was moving out.
He put in his three months’ notice, ignored the frantic phone calls from his mother, filed the paperwork for an LLC, and moved the few things he really wanted to keep into the back room of a bicycle shop a hundred miles away. Everything else he put into Bitcoins, at James’s insistence, in case the apartment complex tried to come after him for damages.
Before he moved out, he decided to host a party.
His friend’s voice sounded tinny through the phone. “Sheldon? Long time, no see. How are you?”
“I’m having a party this weekend at my apartment. I’m moving out and I want to have a big get together with all my friends before I go. Can you make it?“
There was a pause. “Are you serving slurry?”
“No, of course not. There will be burgers.”
“Excellent. I will be there.”
“Great. Bring your whole family. I’d love to meet them. And your friends. Invite them all! It’s going to be a blast.”
Sheldon invited his former coworkers, James, and all of the other folks he’d tutored over the past year, then told them to invite their friends. He didn’t bother asking the AB for permission: he knew they never approved parties for people who were about to move out, (certainly not without a deposit and three forms of insurance), so he might as well go big. Screw the AB.
And I Feel Fine
Nassim brought about 200 of his “closest friends,” including his wives and 4 children, 23 cousins and 47 nieces and nephews. They had burgers for Nassim’s family, veggie burgers for James and the other vegetarians, and firecrackers for the kids. Someone brought beer and James set up speakers behind the grill. What could the AB do, kick him out? His stuff was already gone and he was leaving that evening.
Sheldon laughed and shoveled burgers onto plates. Kids shouted and ran around him. James had been right; many of the so-called “child” refugees had actually been grown adults, but they’d brought their families and now there were babies everywhere.
He’d figured out that there were so many refugees in part because the folks in Outer Angora didn’t bother with technical details like “building codes,” even though the region suffered frequent earth quakes: they just made more children. If you had 12 children and half of them died, well, you still had 6. Sheldon had saved carefully for years, and he still didn’t have any children.
Tomorrow he’d be gone on a new adventure. Maybe he would succeed. Maybe he would fail.
Either way, he was determined to live before he died.
It wasn’t long before the firecrackers attracted the attention of his neighbors. Several of them took burgers and joined the party, but the sour-faced lady from apartment 5-E called the security guard on them.
Thirty minutes later the president of the Apartment Board arrived. He waved his hands. “You have no permit for this gathering.”
“This is a religious holiday,” shouted Nassim. “It is the feast of Good-Rama-Eid-Over. We have every right to be here.”
Sheldon handed Nassim a beer and turned up the music. After several minutes of futile fuming and dodging fireworks, the AB president realized there was nothing he could do about the crowd and left.
“That man.” Nassim waved his hands in imitation. “He walk like virgin. Oh no, a noise! I am frightened.”
Sheldon laughed. He knew that walk. He used to walk like that.
“Hi.” Lauren took one of the veggie burgers.
“Oh, hey. I didn’t realize you were here.”
“Oh, Nassim invited me. He says you’re moving out.”
“Yeah.” He still had trouble believing how good burgers tasted, but he supposed it was a side effect of eating almost nothing but nutritional slurry for a decade. “I’ve invested in a business selling GPS devices and protective gear to mountain bikers.”
“Yeah, obviously it’s really dangerous to go biking in places you don’t know well, and sometimes people get lost up in places where they don’t have cell signal. Then they can’t call for help. So I’ll be selling GPSes, helmets, maybe other things. See what people want.”
She smiled. “I guess I should come by your shop sometime.”
“Yeah. I’ll text you the address. We can go riding together. I can show you the best trails.”
“You’ll make sure I don’t get lost?”
Fireworks exploded at the other end of the courtyard, setting a tree on fire. Gunshots cracked in the distance, followed by sirens. Sheldon wondered if they were celebratory gunshots or the bad kind. Either way, he was glad he was getting out of the city: crime was getting too high around here.