The City

This is the beginning of a piece of fiction on which I am working. It started as an assignment for a creative writing course in which we had to write a short piece set in a future we feared.

The City

She sat on the north side of the steps of the New York Public Library, as she often did, next to the one great stone lion still standing. He had been named Fortitude in the 1930s but she had dubbed him Vincent before she knew that and thought of him that way still. A herd of deer crept on delicate hooves around the wreckage of a car that was so rusted you could barely make out the BMW logo on the hood. She sat very still, watching the deer, heart pounding.

He peered through the sight on his rifle, adjusting it once he found a doe grazing on the edge of the herd, next to the rusted hull of a car. The winter sunlight glinted off the proud head of the remaining lion next on the steps of the Library and flashed in the shards of glass that edged the window. He inhaled slowly, hoping his stomach wouldn’t growl in the silence. He tightened his finger on the trigger and focused on his doe.

A shot rang out from a nearby building—what was left of a glass-walled skyscraper—and the deer fled in terror, leaving one behind on the ground. The doe twitched in her death throes and Elaina sighed. She slid down a few steps to peer beyond the protection of Vincent’s shadow.

A young man was trotting towards the corpse, his rifle slung across his shoulder. His jeans were dirty and ragged, tucked into tall black boots that looked at least a size too big. One was laced with bright orange twine. His navy hoodie had the Yankees logo displayed prominently across the chest, marred only by the belt of ammo that crossed it. He squatted to examine his kill. Elaina scooted back into the shadow of the lion, but accidentally dislodged an empty coke can with her worn tennis shoe and the clatter of aluminum rang out deafeningly in the silence. The boy’s shaggy blonde head jerked upward as he leveled the rifle in her direction.

“Don’t shoot,” she said, her voice echoing off the stone steps. She checked the 9mm Glock 19 that was tucked into the top of her black jeans at her lower back before pulling her baggy khaki vest over it. The boy had straightened from his crouch but his gun was still at the ready. Elaina lifted her hands and held them at her sides as she stood and stepped out from behind the lion.

He relaxed slightly, and quickly looked her up and down. Unlike him, her jeans were faded but clean and her shoes fit, even if her toes almost poked through the fabric in the left sneaker. Her long sleeved sweater was black like her jeans and hung loosely on her small frame. The vest hung well past her hips and was thick and warm. She kept her hands spread wide as she picked her way through the refuse and trash in the streets.

“What do you want?” he asked, standing possessively over the dead doe.

“Just for you to not shoot me,” she said. “I’m not after your deer, so chill out.”

“You from here?” he asked, his eyes flicking around the square.

“Here being the City? Or here being this square?” she couldn’t keep the mockery out of her tone.

“The City. I heard what it was like but…I didn’t expect this,” he finally lowered the gun, looking around with a furrowed brow.

“How old are you?” Elaina asked, not hiding her perusal of him. He looked older closer up; beneath the dirt on his face was a thin layer of scruff a few shades darker than his hair.

“Twenty. You?” he glared at her, bridling under her scrutiny.

“Eighteen. And in answer to your question: yeah, I’m from the City,” Elaina crossed her arms across her thin chest. “Nothing like the pictures, right?”

He shook his head, finally setting his rifle down and kneeling next to the deer. He pulled more orange twine from a pocket and began to hog-tie the doe’s legs together. He kept his eyes on his task, his fingers moving deftly.

“I saw the Statue of Liberty on my way up. I thought there’d be more left.”

Elaina scuffed the toe of her shoe against the concrete as he finished tying the deer. He looked up at her, his blue eyes were bright and weary. Ancient eyes.

“It’s all gone. The Empire State building, Ellis Island, even where the World Trade Center Memorial was built,” he hefted the deer and stood, slinging its body over his shoulders, bowing under the weight.

“The terrorists took out the Memorial first, then the hurricane took the island, and rebels blew up the Empire State Building,” she shrugged, brushing her blonde bangs out of her eyes. “I’m Elaina.”

“Jacob,” he nodded warily. It might not be his real name. She sized him up again. He didn’t look like a rebel.

“You got somewhere to stay?” she asked.

He gestured toward the shells of buildings in the background. Elaina laughed drily, shaking her head. She eyed him again, and then nodded to herself.

“Follow me,” she turned back toward the library.

“What?”

“Just come on,” she threaded her way through patches of broken pavement where dying grass shot through the cement and around piles of rotting garbage. She came to the edge of the library and turned around the corner, where half of the building had been reduced to rubble. She heard Jacob’s footsteps stop and turned to chivvy him on. She was surprised by the look of grief on his face as he stared at the ruins.

“All those books, all of that history…” he trailed off, flushing pink suddenly.

“Come on,” she tried to make her voice gentle. “It’ll be dark soon.”

At last they came to a spot where a flight of stone steps seemed to lead into the ground. Jacob watched as Elaina peered around furtively before hurrying down them and yanking aside a large sheet of metal that groaned on makeshift hinges. He warily followed her into the blackness, blinking when she picked up a lantern and turned it on.

“Solar powered,” she said in explanation, gesturing at the panel on the top. “We still have some batteries stockpiled but we’re saving them for…” she trailed off suddenly.

“I’m not a rebel,” he said, as if reading her thoughts.

“You’d say that though, wouldn’t you?” she held the lantern high in the dim interior and Jacob followed, the deer’s head scraping against the walls when he got too close. His neck was beginning to ache under the animal’s weight and he grunted.

“Almost there,” the girl laughed, turning off the lantern as the passage dead-ended into another doorway. She rapped sharply on the door in what sounded like a pattern. Nothing happened for a few moments, but then Jacob heard scraping noises behind the door and soon it opened a few inches.

“Who is this?” a man’s voice asked.

“Jacob. I found him wandering out front. He’s not from around here. If he’s a rebel he’s alone,” her tone sounded ominous and Jacob wondered how quickly he could drop the deer and get to his gun. The door opened inward to reveal the basement of the Library. Cots were lined along one wall and people sat on them playing cards or talking in low voices. He counted six or so varying in age before he stepped in and was confronted by a gray haired man with a gun.

“Jacob, is it?” his voice was deep and his gray eyes were hard.

“Yeah,” Jacob said defiantly as he fought the urge to say ‘yes sir,’ and shifted the deer slightly, ready to reach for his rifle.

“Where are you from?” the man asked.

“Kenneth, let him put that thing down before you start interrogating him, will you?” Elaina said sharply, surprising Jacob.

The older man glared at her for a moment before nodding and gesturing to a long table along one wall. Jacob gratefully set the deer down and rolled his shoulders to loosen the knot that had formed. He casually adjusted the rifle so that it was easier to reach while his back was turned. Elaina gestured to a few mismatched chairs that sat in a corner around another table that held three more flickering lanterns. Jacob sat and Kenneth sat facing him. Elaina curled herself into a dingy green armchair, pulling the gun from her waistband and resting it next to her knee. Jacob eyed it once, but she was looking at him expectantly.

“So, boy, what’s your story?” Kenneth asked.

Jacob figured he owed it to them; He set his rifle on the ground near his foot.

“I’m from Princeton, New Jersey. My dad and I heard that there’s a place on the border up in Maine where you can get through to Canada and after my mom died we decided to try for it. She was sick, she would have never made it,” he picked at a hangnail on his thumb as he spoke. “We were following along the Jersey Turnpike, and we got separated near Newark when a caravan of rebels came through and we had to run. He said if we got separated to meet up in the City. I went to the place where we were supposed to meet but,” he shrugged expressively, “he wasn’t there.”

“How long did you wait?” Elaina asked.

“Three days. Then I started getting pretty low on supplies, and I figured maybe he got there before me and waited and when I didn’t show he might have gone on,” he looked up at Kenneth, whose bushy black brows were furrowed low over his eyes. “Look, I’m not a rebel. Those bastards are the reason my mom got sick and died. They wouldn’t let us into the hospital because we’re not Party members. It was just the flu, but she couldn’t beat it,” the room fell silent and he realized his voice was raised. Gradually the talking started back up, quietly, and he glared at Kenneth until the man nodded at last. Elaina suppressed an exasperated sigh.

“I believe you,” she said firmly. “You can stay with us, but we won’t be here much longer. We’re heading for the border, too.”

“All of you, together?” Jacob looked around, eyebrows raised.

“Yes,” Elaina said, cutting Kenneth off as he opened his mouth to speak. “We have a few cars hidden around the City that we’ve repaired. We’ve been stockpiling gasoline—getting it out of broken down cars, generators—for months now, and we finally have enough ammo. We’re not taking any chances with rebels or anyone else.”

“Elaina organized everything,” Kenneth said gruffly and Jacob eyed her skeptically. She noticed the look and twitched her fingers towards the Glock with a glare. Jacob tried to make his expression bland.

“We can’t stay here. As much as it’s become home,” she eyed the room fondly before her expression hardened. “Things will only get worse. The rebel patrols have gotten closer and closer to catching us and if someone gets sick…We have to look out for ourselves, cause no one else is going to.”

“Can I come with you?” he blurted.

“Elaina, the cars are full enough as is,” Kenneth muttered, as though Jacob couldn’t hear. She simply looked at the older man for a long moment, biting her bottom lip.

“What about your dad?” She asked at last, skewering Jacob with her gaze. He met her eyes levelly before answering.

“I don’t know if I’ll find him even if I keep waiting. I don’t know if he’s even alive. Like you said, we have to look out for ourselves,” Jacob said. It was harsh, but so was everything else these days

“You can come. We could use a shot like you. But you have to pull your own weight, and get used to the fact that everything belongs to everyone. If you endanger us, you’re gone. Stupidity can get us all killed,” she waited until he nodded with agreement.

Then again, maybe his father was already on his way to Canada and would be there, waiting for him.

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