Authors: Bill Leviathan
Set Me Alight
Copyright 2014 Bill Leviathan
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Table of Contents
It was so God damned cold in there. Not much else you could expect when there was only a thin layer of tarp and pizza boxes shielding you from the cold Pennsylvania winter air. There wasn't much I could do to occupy my time. My weary body was aching for a good night's sleep, but the cold was keeping me up in a borderline delirious state. There's no one else to keep me company in the drafty little home I had. No one except "Authentic Tony". He stared at me with his fat little face, mocking me with his stupid little grin and that warm, fulfilling pizza floating right next to his head. Authentic Tony lived in a dream world of never ending pizza and eternal smugness, something I could never hope to achieve during my futile existence. I kept telling myself I was going to turn that box around, but who else would I be able to direct my hate and anguish towards then? Myself? I already spent most of my day doing that. I didn't need to spend my nights doing it as well. Tony would stay, his haunting glare watching over me as I drifted into an intermittent sleep.
Day time hardly brought any relief. If I stood directly in the sun, I could warm up a little bit, praying that a gust of wind didn't pass by, piercing through the tattered rags I called clothes. The sun's warmth on my skin was the only relief I got during those winter months, a little bit of feeling returning to my arms and legs as I basked in the sun. Most of the day was just a dreary reminder of what life had become for us ‘workers’ or ‘commoners’ or whatever you wanted to call us. I would wake up, walk out of my tent, and shamble around our little village of cardboard box and tarpaulin homes to see what I could scavenge for warmth or sustenance. Every now and then I would get lucky. I would find a half-eaten apple or a moldy crust of bread. Most days, the best I got was discovering one of my neighbors wouldn't be waking up any more, providing me a few more tattered layers to wrap myself with.
After I stopped hating myself just enough to get motivated to move out of bed, I made my way out of the village in a search for work. There wasn't much to be found in those days. The only people who seemed to be paying were cleanup crews. You would spend the whole day picking up other people's shit. They had you go into the gated communities to remove their trash, head to the nearest factory to pick up their dumped waste, and sometimes they would have you carry off the half frozen bodies from the benches downtown. I would stand around in a group of a hundred guys, wait for a pickup truck to pull up, and hope I was one of the lucky three people picked for the job. It was a good day if even a quarter of the group got selected to work. Most of the time it was closer to one tenth. The good days always seemed to come after particularly cold nights.
I missed out on work once again. I was looking at another wasted day. Without the work, it was doubtful I'd get anything to eat. Nothing substantial anyway. What to do to take my mind off the crippling hunger pangs? Sitting around the little fire in the center of the village was always a good way to pass the time. There would always be some old geezer telling stories of what it was like before the crisis, or some young kid detailing their dreams of making it big one day and how they'll still remember us little guys. Those were always the best. The delusions of breaking free from the circle of poverty, a delusion that only a teenager who spends too much of their spare time standing outside the windows of television shops could have. At the very least, I'd hear a story from some poor woman who witnessed their entire family waste away before them just last week. It’s nice to be reminded there's someone out there worse off than me. It's the little tragedies of everyone else's lives that get me through each day.
Before I could make it to the village center, I saw my neighbor Jon heading toward me. It seemed like it was every day he'd cooked up some sort of scheme to get us out of this village. All of them were half-cooked ideas and concepts his 8th grade education level couldn't even begin to comprehend. My favorite of his had always been to somehow extract the grease from all the discarded pizza boxes and take-out containers, and then sell it to the government as an alternate fuel source. The food in those containers was 90% artificial grease, but it hardly provided sufficient fuel for our poor bodies. How was it ever going to power something useful?
"Hey, Pete, how's it going?"
"Same as always, Jon. I'm cold, I'm tired, I'm hungry, and there's no end in sight. At least I still have my sunny disposition."
"Jesus, Pete, first thing in the morning and you're already rattling off about how shit humanity's existence is. Shut the fuck up already. I've only just saw you and I'm already tired of your God damned cynicism. I've got something important to talk to you about."
"Yeah? What is it this time? We going to try your plan of breaking into rich neighborhoods to siphon off gas to sell it to other neighborhoods? You still haven't quite figured out how to get past those high fences or armed guards."
"I've already warned you, man, quit it with the tired cynical shit. Winter is almost over, man. I heard on the radio they're predicting a dry spring and summer out in the West. You know what that means?"
"I don't have the slightest idea what that could mean."
"Summer forest fires, and lots of them. They need people to fight those fires. Desperate, dumb kids who have nothing else going for them. And they pay a lot, man. A lot. Work for three months out of the year, and then faff about for the rest."
"That's just great, Jon. There's a big problem with this master plan of yours, though. We live on the East Coast, not out west. There are no fires here. There are about 2,000 miles between us and the fires."
"Good thing we have a few months to travel those 2,000 miles to get to those fires."
"Ok, and how are we going to train to fight fires on this trip? They may be looking for 'dumb and desperate' kids, but it doesn't sound like an easy job. We're going to get ourselves killed awfully quick if we don't know what the hell we're doing."
"You know Old Jim from the other side of the village? He was a volunteer firefighter in Philly before the crisis. I've already run this by him, and he's coming. He said he would help 'train' us as best he can along the way."
"Alright, alright. When are you two planning on leaving for this little adventure?"
"Tomorrow. We haven't told anyone else, so if you're interested, show up tomorrow at the train yard. We'll be trying to hitch a ride from there."
"If I decide to go, I better not end up standing in the train yard alone with my dick in my hand, you hear?"
"Don't worry, man, Old Jim and I are one hundred percent committed. See you tomorrow."
"Don't be so sure I'll be there Jon."
I don't think I slept at all that night. I wracked my brain over what to do the next morning. Was Jon being serious? Did he think we stood a chance out there in the West? It’s a long ride out there, and we had no provisions to speak of. Though, what exactly was I hanging onto there? My little starring contests with Authentic Tony? Maybe we could find a train heading down south, warm our bones a little before what I thought was the inevitable - us starving to death while tucked away in the back of some train car. A train yard worker would find us, our bodies frozen stiff and huddled together in a desperate attempt for warmth. They’d pry our frozen bodies apart from the floor of the train car with crow bars, and then dump us on the side of the rails for the summer vultures to pick at.
The warmer cities were overrun with us 'workers' that time of the year. Where exactly would we be heading? The "West" is a pretty big area. Texas? California? Those places already had too many mouths to feed, they may not give us the warmest of welcomes. Though, we would have time to decide where we'd be heading along the way. It would take a lot of train hopping to get there. Lots of opportunities to get caught by some train yard guards. I'd lived in Pennsylvania my whole life, never really had much of an opportunity to travel. I had a car when I was sixteen. Wasn't long before I had to sell it for scrap to buy some food. I'd been able to pick up some national news over the radio or on the screens in the television shops, and it didn't seem like they were living any different throughout the rest of the country. I shouldn't have been that much of an outsider. We'd all had the same experiences for the past decade. Hunger, shame, and a complete loss of our dignity. That's what unified the common man, a cold emptiness that permeated through all of us. Or maybe not. That could just be the ever cynical East Coast attitude that radiated through me. Maybe they really were just happy out there. ‘West coast is the best coast’ as the saying went, right? We may not have made it all the way to the coast though. Might not have made it past the Rockies, or somewhere in the Great Plains. There's a lot of fires out there, no reason to keep going further west. We'd just be another couple of outsider Okies in an already overcrowded California. I'm not wasn't getting anywhere stewing alone in my hypotheticals. Maybe the dawn sunlight on my face would bring about some sort of revelation. A little vitamin D should help clear up my thoughts, or at least have made me less likely to kill myself.
Well, dawn came around sooner than I hoped. What was I going to do? There wasn't much packing to be done if I decided to go. A blanket, maybe a couple of plastic bags to wrap around my feet to keep them dry. I didn't own much more than the clothes on my back. Shit. There's no better reminder of what little mark you're leaving on the world than preparing to move. Nothing, I had literally nothing to claim to my name. If I left there, no one would notice. Just a small empty spot for another down-on-his-luck bum to set up their tent in. I could only hope they would have a happier existence there than I ever did.
Ok, that was it. I'd made up my mind, I was going to the God damned train yard to meet up with Jon and Old Jim. I had my blanket, my tarp, and a few plastic bags that weren't too riddled with holes. My neighbor Bob never returned to his tent that night. He left behind a pair of shoes. The soles were only half attached, but they would do. I'd find some duct tape along the way to attach them. They were size 10. It was my lucky day, only two sizes too small. Almost enough space where I can pretend to wiggle my toes. Life was looking up already.
It was quite a hike to the train yard. An hour and a half walk. I left early, so it would be eight or nine in the morning by the time I got there. Jon never said what time to meet him, just to be there. Fuck, what if he was already gone? I would have robbed Bob for nothing. How long would I wait there? Fifteen minutes, an hour, two hours, five hours, until dusk? It's not like I had plans or anything for that day, but at least I would be able to stew in my own self-pity in the comfort of my own home.
Thank God, Jon and Jim showed up. Old Jim was a lot older than I anticipated. Grey haired and hunched over a cane. His name wasn't ironic. I already had a feeling that he was going to be a liability on our way out. His dentures would probably fall out while catching a moving train, and I'd be forced to spoon feed him his meals. That, or he'd just going to keel over and die before he did anything useful for us. I was sick and tired of people dying off before I could fully exploit them.
"Pete! Glad to see you've made it," Jon yelled out.
"Might as well rot away out West if I'm just going to rot away here."
"You always bring the best attitude," Jon said.
"So, Jon, have you and Jim decided on where we're going? Or are we just seeing where the trains take us?"
"We're going to Montana," Old Jim replied.