Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cold Rolled Steel, Chapter I

Night is a relative word when used to discuss a level of darkness. Minnow looked nowhere. With no light at all the word look didn’t really apply. The vault that imprisoned him was tightly sealed. It was possessed of cold metal walls over a foot in thickness. Minnow had noted that thickness, the polished smoothness of rounded lugs, as well as the unusually beautiful locking action, which had been visible through a clear glass panel that covered the door as he’d been pushed in. There was no light inside. There was to be no breathable air at some future time, not far distant either.
They’d not killed him like they had the others. Minnow had been terrified of being killed, until the vault had been discovered open, and he’d seen the cruelty come to the surface of black paint-slashed faces surrounding him. They’d coldly killed the only people on earth he’d known or cared about. They’d acted with no evident expression of emotions, but that had changed when they’d found the vault.
Minnow pressed his right ear against the cold glass to listen. There were not more sounds. The Zigzag horde had remained in the sub-basement of the fallen building for a long time, occasionally tapping on the side of the vault to let their captive know that life continued and would go on long after the air was gone and he was dead. All was silent, not that it mattered.
There was nothing to do. Debris covered the floor of the vault. Old papers of some sort, files, metal drawers and even some coins. Minnow sat and thought. The fear of death had receded from his mind. Dying alone in the dark was more preferable than being shot or gutted by the lunatic Zigzag gang among the bodies of his family. They hadn’t been real family. Minnow had no real family. He had no memory of where he’d come from or how he’d come to be a part of the group he was with. They had just seemed to always be there, although they’d never let him forget that he was an outsider taken in because of their generous nature.
Nobody had searched him, probably because he wore only a ratty “T” shirt, torn shorts and flip-flops on his feet. He took out his single prized possession.
The Zippo clicked open to his thumb, the wheel rasped as he brought the same digit back down across it, and there was light. Minnow, even at fifteen years of age, knew that the lighter would burn up whatever remaining air was left in the vault all the faster but he also knew that it didn’t really matter. Death was not to be measured by ‘if’ thinking. Death was ‘when’ kind of thinking.
The Zippo had an insignia on its side: “1st Mar. Div.” A raised globe and anchor protruded from beneath the insignia. None of it made any sense to Minnow. He liked the flicker flame and the ability to start a fire any time he wanted. His reflection wavered back at him in the polished glass of the door. His hair was long, curly and unkempt. He liked his bushy eyebrows and long eyelashes. His ‘sister,’ while she was living, had told him that his face was too round and his body too stocky to be a real member of the family but Minnow didn’t care. He was fast, tough and healthy. They all said that there was something wrong with his head because he was too quick to laugh at things that they didn’t think were funny.
He couldn’t put the lighter out. He wouldn’t sit and die in the dark, even if it meant that he’d die much sooner. With one hand Minnow wound some papers together to form a tight cone. He lit the cone. As soon as it ignited he clicked his Zippo shut. Light and warmth filled the small chamber.
Listlessly, he went through the empty metal drawers. There was nothing. Under the last door there was a dully-black tube, however. Minnow pushed at it with his foot but it didn’t move. The tube was about the size of his forearm. Minnow kicked at it until finally it budged a bit. Reaching down, across the top of the small fire, he worked at it with his fingers until it came free from the crease it had been wedged into.
Minnow held it up to the fire. It was very heavy for its size. He hefted it up and down, and then coughed deeply, dropping it to the floor. He tried to breath in and out deeply but found that that was no longer possible. The air was too think and smoke was beginning to dim and hurt his vision. Without thinking, in anger and frustration, he picked up the bar and slammed it against the glass pane covering the gears and levers located behind.
The glass shattered into a million pieces. The fire was instantly extinguished.
Minnow fell against the exposed gears and levers. With his eyes closed tightly he felt the smooth oiled surfaces with his fingers. One lever had crosshatched cuttings over the end of its surfaces. With both hands Minnow pulled the lever down.
When the lever moved deep clicks sounded from all around the edges of the door. Minnow pulled the lever all the way down. The door cracked open.
With all the strength of his legs, Minnow pushed against the back wall, forcing the door further and further open, until his small thick body was fully extended. He rolled out of the vault onto the concrete floor of the sub-basement, and then slid a few feet brushing small chunks of glass from his hands as he went.
The place was a mess of blood, dead bodies and torn up mattresses. The canned food they tribe had collected so laboriously was all gone, which was the first thing Minnow focused on when he stopped coughing. He lay on the floor and sucked in air. He had not realized, until he’d slipped through the crack of the door, that’d he’d been so close to suffocation.
The Zigzag’s, with their characteristic black slashed faces, were gone.
The attack had been about the food. The family was followed, and then put under surveillance by the gang. Life was mostly about food, Minnow knew.
“Little one,” a voice from somewhere nearby squeaked.
“Who’s there?” Minnow responded, gathering his feet under him to flee.
“I’m here, under the bodies,” the deep slow voice intoned back.
Minnow searched the broken terrain around him. The light, shining down through broken pieces of cracked concrete slab above, provided little recognition assistance. There was no movement.
‘If you’re there, then say something I recognize,” Minnow said, finally, after about ten minutes had gone by.
“Mameluke,” the small deep voice intoned.
Minnow immediately jumped up upon hearing the word. He searched through the strewn wreckage and body parts, looking for the man whose voice he’d heard but couldn’t place. The word was all he needed to know. The voice was not from a ghost or an enemy. Mameluke was the name of the sword the family leader carried at his waist. It was the symbol of their family strength.
The body was under a body, but it wasn’t the body of a man or boy. It was a girl he found, when he pushed aside the ‘father’ of the family covering her. He knew it was a girl because her top was torn and twin breasts pointed up at him.
“What are you lookin’ at,” the girl said, pulling the tattered remains of a shirt over her bare chest.
Minnow remembered her. She never talked. People called her Truck, because she worked ferociously hard at anything she did. In his years with the family he’d never spoken to her. Several times he’d been bumped aside by her but that was it. The family had not been much of a social unit. Food scavenging, moving rapidly from place to place, and watching had been what the family had done.
Truck stood up, her height about the same as Minnows, but her body much thinner, her face much more pointed and attractive.
“Get the sword, it’s the only weapon left,” she pointed at the waist of their dead ‘father’ when she spoke, holding the shirt together with the other hand.
Minnow worked the sword and belt free of the dead man. He strapped it around his own waist, but the thirty-eight inch blade dragged on the ground once he had the thing on.
“My name’s Mar from now on. You call me Truck, just once and that’s it. You understand?” She said the words as she walked toward the ladder, the only way to enter or leave the sub-basement. “You want to be something other than Minnow, speak up.”
He looked at her with his brows knit did not reply.
“You got yourself into that safe to escape, I presume,” she said, looking back at the vault’s gaping door.
Minnow followed her eyes but again said nothing. His cowardice, or the truth, didn’t really matter and he understood that. Mary and he were the only survivors and they were all they had, until the cat screamed.
Both of them turned at the loud sound. Minnow remembered.
The cat had been trapped days earlier. Their ‘father’ had said that cats made good eating although they were very hard to catch. At one time people had kept them as pets, but Minnow didn’t understand at all why they would have done that.
The cat in the cage weighed at least twenty pounds, and did not fit the description the family had given him of a domestic pet at all. The thing was all spotted and seemed to be made of coiled muscle.
“Let it out?” Mar asked.
Minnow shrugged, went over to the cage and hit the mechanical release latch. The cat leaped out, feinted a run at him, making Minnow cower back, and then ran up the ladder and out the door at the top.
“Nice pet,” Minnow said, sarcastically, to cover his movement of fear when the animal had leaped out.
Mar didn’t say anything. He followed her up the ladder and out into the sun filled day outside. The Mameluke bounced and clattered at his every move. Once outside he sat down on the concrete steps and began working on the leather harness. It took several minutes to convert the waist belt into a shoulder belt so the sword would sit across the flat of his back and not drag along the ground.
The idiot cat had not run away. Instead it sat about five feet from him, licking its front paws, one after the other.
“I think its wild. Crazy, or something,” Mar said, sitting on the stair next to him.
“Who?” Minnow asked, stupidly.
“The cat, idiot.” She replied. “I think his name should be Mameluke, like the sword, which is also useless. We need guns not swords. The Zigzags shot everyone in the family. They didn’t use swords. We need guns. The cat can be Mameluke.”
Minnow turned to look at Mar, his sword finally strapped securely to his back.
“I don’t understand you. I didn’t think you talked. Now you talk all the time but I don’t really understand what you say.”
“I said the cat’s name’s Mameluke,” she said, and then leaned out to stroke the creature.
The cart’s response was invisible it was so fast. Mar let out a short gasp. She drew her hand back bleeding. Mameluke went back to grooming his paws.
“Mameluke it is then,” Minnow stated, trying not to laugh at the appropriateness of the cat’s name.
“We never talked, in the family, about what happened to the world. What do you think happened?” Mar asked, still massaging the scratch on the back of her hand.
“I don’t know,” Minnow answered. “I don’t remember anything except waking up one day with the family. There are all these ruins.” He waved his around all around them. “All the stored foods and stuff we find in different places. I don’t know. Something happened. People didn’t used to live like we do now.”
Mar stood up, one hand still securing the torn shirt across her chest. “We have to find one of those places that has clothes, if we can. I can’t go around like this or we’ll be in even more trouble.
Minnow couldn’t imagine being in more trouble, except maybe being locked in the vault, than they were already in. They had no food, no water and no supplies at all except the Zippo and the Mameluke. The car meowed.
“And Mameluke here, I guess” he said back to the cat as he raised himself up to follow the girl down the steps.