RELICS

This story was published in the anthology Alternative Truths, a collection of tales written in response to the political situation America finds itself in. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the book go to the ACLU, and a number of the authors have also devoted their share of royalties to that cause. Please visit Amazon.com to buy a copy.

 

RELICS

a fable

The banging of a sledgehammer woke Livvy from the heavy sleep of early morning. She opened her dry eyes gingerly, lifting the lids a tiny bit at a time, blinking to stir up some moisture. Gray dawn showed through the thin curtain of her single window. It was too early for birdsong. Not too early for the sledgehammers.

Livvy pulled her mother’s handmade quilt over her head, and indulged in a few moments’ longing for the old days, when Butch had been alive and they lived in a real house. It wasn’t much of a house, being in the shade of the Wall, but it was far enough away so the racket of building and repairs didn’t reach them. She longed for one night of uninterrupted sleep. It seemed those were in the past, as so many comforts were.

Some of the other relics, relegated to the shacks as Livvy now was, were deaf enough to sleep through the noise. Livvy’s hearing was intact, though other parts of her weren’t, and she slept uneasily since Butch died. She kept her single door locked, but it was only plywood. It wouldn’t do a thing to stop the gangs if they came in search of food or blankets. There were guards here and there, of course, but they were meant for the Wall, not for protecting people who couldn’t work anymore.

Livvy pushed back the quilt. “Get yourself up now, Olivia Sutton,” she said aloud. Butch used to tease her about talking to herself, and her reply, that she was talking to the cat, made him laugh. She wished Butch was still here to tease her. The cat was gone, too.

She smoothed her bed, and drew back the curtain gingerly, so the threadbare fabric wouldn’t tear again. Her window faced the dirt lane separating the Wall and the dilapidated row of shacks from the houses of the village. The shacks were flimsy squares built from boards and metal pieces left over from construction of the Wall. Each was a single room with a toilet and a woodstove, built like a lean-to, attached to the massive bulk of the Wall itself. They were differentiated mostly by the colors and textures of whatever had been used to build them.

The shacks had been thrown together for Wall workers a long time ago. When the workers moved on to other sections, the Council pressed the shacks into use for people like Livvy, people who couldn’t work anymore. It pleased the Council to call them “the Residences,” but everyone else called them the shacks.

Sometimes, when the Wall shifted or settled, a shack would shatter, and tumble to pieces. If the inhabitants were lucky, they escaped with a few bruises. If they weren’t lucky, they died.

Of course, the relics were close to death anyway, so no one cared much. Livvy suspected most of the relics didn’t care much, either.

She used the toilet, changed into the shapeless dress she wore most days, and walked the five steps to the woodstove. She had a few grains of coffee left, brought to her by one of the church ladies, and a pitcher of water she had carried in yesterday. She could make one cup of coffee, probably her last. Coffee didn’t grow on this side of the Wall. Coffee needed sunlight, and the Wall cast a long, deep shadow.

Soon there would be no coffee left except for the people who lived above the shade line, people with coins to pay the smugglers. It was illegal to buy from them, of course, but when it came to the people in the big houses, the law turned a blind eye. Even if Olivia Sutton had coins, she wouldn’t dare buy from a smuggler.

Livvy heard that on the other side they had oranges, too. She loved oranges, the look of them, the weight of one in your hand, the wonderful scent that broke free as you peeled away the skin. Apples grew at the top of the hill, and she and the other relics were allowed to pick up the ones that fell to the ground, but Livvy longed for oranges. There had been a few in her girlhood, and later, in her working life, as an occasional bonus. Sometimes she craved their tart sweetness so much her belly ached in response.

She took care brewing the precious cup of coffee. When it was ready, she divided it in two. Porter, next door, had run out the day before. With both cups in her hands, she crossed the patch of dirt and gravel to his shack.

He hobbled out to meet her, leaning on a long, knobbled stick, moving as if every step caused him pain. “You look nice today, Mrs. Sutton,” he panted.

She chuckled, and handed him the half cup of coffee. “You’re an old sweet talker, Porter,” she said. “I can guess how I look.”
A rickety bench ran along the side of his shack, built from more Wall remnants. Livvy held Porter’s arm as he struggled to settle onto it. It was cold in the shade of the Wall, and Livvy’s skin prickled with goosebumps. The Wall grew higher every year, and every year its shade devoured more of the village. People complained their vegetables wouldn’t grow, and their fruit trees were dying. Still the Wall rose higher. The complainers achieved nothing but warnings from the Council.

Livvy took a sip of coffee, and closed her eyes at the rich bitterness. “I’m going to miss this,” she said.

“Kind of you to share,” he said.

She opened her eyes and smiled at him. “Don’t mention it.”

Porter seemed to be fading before her eyes. His scalp showed through the few remaining white strands on his head. His eyes were clouded with cataracts, his hands bent and twisted by arthritis. There was a time, her mother had claimed, when there were remedies for arthritis, and cataracts could be taken out. Such things had disappeared before Livvy was born.

Her life, like her mother’s, like Porter’s, like Butch’s, had been lived in the shadow of the Wall. Butch had died on it, putting a foot wrong when he was laying stones at the top, falling to an ugly death on the piled boulders at the foot. There was supposed to be a pension for his widow, but it never materialized.

Livvy had often tried to persuade Butch to find another line of work. He only shrugged. “What else can I do?” he said, every time. “They won’t have me on the Council.” He had laughed at the old joke, the way he laughed at everything. Livvy hadn’t found it funny.

Now she shivered a little, and Porter said, “Let me get my blanket for you.” He moved his stick, and tried to get to his feet.

“No, no,” she said, as he fell back on the bench with a breathless groan. “I’m perfectly fine, Porter. Let’s you and me enjoy this last bit of coffee, and then I’ll see if I can’t walk up the hill. Get some sunshine. Maybe see if there are some apples left.”

“Wish I could escort you,” he said. “These old legs won’t hardly carry me no more.”

“I’m real sorry about that, Porter.”

His shrug reminded her, painfully, of Butch’s. “Doesn’t matter now,” Porter said.

“Of course it matters!”

“Nah. Once a man can’t work, that’s pretty much it.”

“A woman, too.”

“Yeah, that’s right, Mrs. Sutton. That’s right. A woman, too.”

The hill was steep and long, a single, mostly-paved road leading up to the big houses of the Council members. The shade didn’t reach those houses. They rose proudly into the sunshine, their gardens full of flowers, their trees flourishing. Livvy had worked in one of those houses for years, cleaning and taking care of chidren, sometimes cooking. The housekeeper always called her Mrs. Sutton, and she let her take leftovers home to Butch. Sometimes she slipped packets of coffee and sugar into her apron pockets as little treats. Livvy’s favorite days were spent minding the Councilman’s chidren, taking them to the playground or reading to them.

When she couldn’t get down on her knees anymore to scrub floors, the Councilman fired her. It was better than falling from the top of the Wall to break her neck, but not much. It was the end of good things in her life. She didn’t bother asking if she could still come to read to the children. Truth was, if that Councilman met her on the street, he wouldn’t know her, and he sure wouldn’t care whether she wanted to see the little ones. The only good thing was that without a job, she could lend a hand to Porter, who had no one to see him through to his end.

Porter had never married. Livvy had never had a child who lived more than a few months. They made good neighbors.

He drained his cup, closing his eyes as she had done to savor the last drops. “That was good. Thanks.”

She took his cup in her cold fingers, and rose. “You’re welcome. You have something for breakfast?”

“Yeah. I have an egg.”

She raised her brows. “Who brought you an egg?”

“Woman from the church.”

“That was nice of her.”

“Had to listen to her sermon, though.”

Livvy chuckled, and the two cups clinked together. “Pretty bad, was it?”

“Yeah. Seems I ain’t saved, at least not the right way. That really bothers her. Still let me have the egg, though.”

“Do you want me to come over and cook it for you?”

“Naw, I can do it. You go try to get some sun.”

#

Livvy’s knees ached with the cold, but she managed, painfully, to climb the hill to the old school playground. She settled herself onto one of the children’s swings that hung, empty and abandoned, from a rusting steel frame. The sun rose high enough above the Wall that the playground was bright by midday. She put her face up into the sunshine and waited for her aching joints to thaw in its warmth.

The school had closed decades before. There weren’t many children about anymore, so the park was usually empty. She used to love pushing children on the swing, or waiting for them at the bottom of the slide. When she heard the mothers snap with impatience, she wanted to hush them, tell them how fortunate they were to have living children.

She never did it. As Butch said, better to keep your head down and mind your own business. You never knew if the Council was going to take after you. You could lose everything.

She lost everything anyway. First Butch, then her job, then her little house with its trio of tiny graves that never saw the sun.
Oh, and the cat disappeared. Thinking of the silly cat made her eyes sting.

Livvy muttered, “You gotta stop that, Olivia Sutton. Cat would be long dead by now.” She blinked, and shaded her eyes against the glitter of sunlight.

From the playground, she could see miles of the Wall. She was curious to know how much higher it had grown in her lifetime. Butch used to say it was growing three inches a year. That seemed like too much to Livvy, but Butch was usually right about such things. She also had no idea how long it actually was. There had been a boy, when she was young, who swore he’d walked along it for two solid weeks and never reached the end.

Livvy had never been out of the village. She didn’t dare leave, for fear the Council wouldn’t allow her back in.

She pushed with her feet, and the swing rocked gently, forward and back. The Wall loomed below her, many yards thick at the bottom, growing narrower and narrower until it was only a foot or so across at the top. Butch said it used to be steel from top to bottom, one flat plane, but since there was no more steel—those factories had fallen to ruin long ago—now it was an ugly mountain of rocks and dirt and who knew what-all, patched together with cement.

It was protection, the Council said. To keep the people safe. Nobody could recall for sure what they were being protected from, but there were lots of rumors. Thieves. Murderers. Rape gangs. Kidnappers.

Livvy wasn’t sure what to believe. Sometimes she imagined there were just people on the other side, people different from herself, but having their own hopes and dreams and sorrows. She didn’t expect she’d ever find out.

She swung again, her knees and ankles beginning to feel warm at last. She was hungry, and thought of going to the soup kitchen in the church basement, but she was reluctant to leave the sunshine. The church basement smelled of cheap candles and old food, and echoed with hymns and lectures. She wished she could take a bowl of soup back to her shack, and eat it in peace, but they would never allow that. They liked the relics to behave themselves, and act properly grateful.

She was trying to decide whether to go home for a cold sandwich or subject herself to the church ladies when she heard a light step behind her. Stiffly, she twisted her body so she could see who had come into the park.

A little girl was climbing the stairs to the slide. She couldn’t have been more than eight, with a thatch of fair curly hair and good leather shoes that looked as if they fit her well. One of the Councilmen’s children, for sure. Livvy looked around for her minder, but didn’t see anyone. Maybe the girl had escaped to seek a few moments in the sun, just as she had.

Livvy worked her body out of the swing seat, and limped to the foot of the slide. “I’ll catch you,” she told the child.

“Okay!” The girl put her legs over the edge of the rusty steel incline. She was wearing denim pants, and there were rough spots on the slide.

“You might tear your pants,” Livvy warned.

“I know,” the girl said, and pushed off.

Now Livvy knew for sure she was the daughter of a Councilman. No one else could risk their clothes that way. The girl bumped down the slide, its surface no longer smooth enough for real sliding. At the bottom, Livvy put out her hands, though there was really no catching involved. It was nice, though, to touch a child’s firm, warm body. She released her with a pang, remembering all the times she had caught children coming fast down the slide, shrieking with joy, flying into her waiting hands.

She folded her arms. “What’s your name?”

“Pansy.” The girl started for the stairs again.

“Where’s your mama? Or your minder?”

“Mama’s at home. She’s feeling sick.”

“Does she know you’re here?”

Pansy had reached the top of the stairs. She swung her legs over again, but didn’t push off. “No.”

“Shall I walk you home?”

Pansy pushed herself off, and slowly bumped her way to the bottom of the slide. Livvy didn’t try to catch her, or even put out her hands, though she would have liked to touch the child again, to feel youth and energy and warmth through her fingers.

Pansy said, “Did you used to go the school?”

“Yes, until it closed.”

“Why did it close?” Pansy bounced on her toes as if standing still was impossible.

“Doesn’t your mama tell you about that?”

“No.”

“Well.” Livvy turned to look at the faded school buildings, the windows boarded up, the old parking lot cracked and sprouting weeds. “Well, I guess people just lost interest in the school. They let it die.”

“I wish I could go to school.”

“Who’s teaching you to read? To do your arithmetic?”

“Mama. But she doesn’t read very well herself.”

“Oh, I’m real sorry about that, Pansy. I do love reading books.”

The little girl turned up her face, blue eyes sparking with interest. “Do you? Could you teach me?”

“I would, but I don’t have books to use.”

Pansy said, “I have books. I have three of them.”

“That’s nice. What are they called?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ah. You haven’t learned to read at all, then.”

“No.” Pansy sighed, and looked around at the dilapidated play equipment. “Kids used to play here, I think.”

“Yes, they did. I did.”

“You were lucky.”

“In some things.” Livvy looked around, surprised no one had come looking for the child. “I think I should walk you home, Pansy.”

“We could read one of my books!” The little girl bounced on her toes, and her curls shook with enthusiasm.

“If your mama says it’s okay.”

“Mama’s lying down.” Pansy seized Livvy’s hand with her small, strong one. “Come on!” As they started out of the playground, Pansy asked, “What’s your name?”

“Olivia Sutton, but you can call me Livvy.”

Pansy swung Livvy’s hand back and forth, and walked on her toes, as if regular walking didn’t burn enough energy. “Are you old, Livvy? You look really old.”

Livvy laughed, and it felt good. She hadn’t laughed in a while. “I’m pretty old. It’s what happens if you live a long time.”

“Will I be old some day?”

Livvy squeezed the little girl’s hand. “I hope so, Pansy. I do hope so.”

It wasn’t an easy climb, and she struggled to keep up with the child. She was out of breath by the time they reached Pansy’s house, a solid sort of building with two floors and multiple windows, and an iron fence around everything. There was even a garage behind it, its door up, waiting for one of the few remaining automobiles to be parked there.

Pansy led her around to a side gate, and then in through a spacious kitchen with real cupboards and a stove with four burners. It made Livvy sigh with nostalgia. There was an electric coffeepot and an assortment of cups hanging on hooks above it. There was a counter with stools beside it, and a fruit bowl that held three apples and one single, perfect orange.

The sight of the orange made Livvy’s mouth water. She averted her gaze.

Pansy dashed into another room, and came back with a little stack of three slender books. She held them out to Livvy. “Can we read now?”

Livvy cast an uneasy glance around her. “We should get permission from your mama first. She might think I—well, that I came for something else.”

“What?”

Livvy didn’t know how to explain to a child that she was at risk of being accused of theft, or abuse, or whatever offense might occur to someone. Pansy obviously didn’t notice that she and Livvy were different colors. It had been interesting to Livvy that the little girl saw she was old, but not that she was dark. Pansy wouldn’t understand the problem.

“Who are you?”

Livvy started, and whirled to see a young, very thin woman in a white bathrobe standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “Oh! Hello, ma’am,” Livvy said hastily. “I just walked your little girl back from the playground. Didn’t seem like she should be on her own that way.”

The woman put a hand to her throat, holding the lapels of her robe close. She looked frail, and Livvy wondered just how ill she was. “Pansy,” the woman said, in a thready voice. “You weren’t supposed to go out of the yard!”

“Sorry, Mama,” Pansy said, without sincerity. “This is Livvy, and she—”

“Olivia Sutton, ma’am. I used to work two houses down.”

“Oh.” The woman took an uncertain step to one side, as if she couldn’t decide whether to go back upstairs or come into the room and face the situation. “Pansy isn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but—”

“I told you, Mama!” Pansy cried. “This isn’t a stranger. This is Livvy. Livvy’s going to teach me to read.”

#

It was the nicest afternoon Livvy had enjoyed in a very long time. Pansy’s mother, called Sarah, was easily convinced that Livvy was no threat to her house or her child, and retreated to her bedroom. Pansy and Livvy made cheese sandwiches, and Livvy made Pansy carry one up to her mother before they ate. Afterward, she sat down with the little girl and read all three of her books. When she finished, she started again with the first, explaining how the letters worked. Once Pansy could read the title and the first sentence, she seized the book, and galloped up the stairs to show her mother.

Sarah came down once again, still barefoot, but dressed in a blouse and skirt. “Thank you, Olivia,” she said. “Pansy has been longing to learn to read. Let me give you some money.”

“Oh, no, ma’am, thank you, but I don’t want to be paid. I enjoyed myself.”

“Well,” Sarah said, with a vague wave of her hand. “I should give you something. Pansy gets so lonely since I’ve been sick.”

Livvy hesitated. She hadn’t come to the house for anything except to read to Pansy, but the chance was too good to pass up. She hugged herself, and blurted, “Ma’am, if you have any extra coffee . . .?” At Sarah’s surprised look, she said, “I’m down in the sh—the residences, see, and we don’t get coffee too often.”

“Oh!” Sarah said. “Oh, if you want coffee . . .” She pointed at the cupboard above the coffeepot. “Help yourself. As much as you like.” Another wave. “There’s some sugar, too, I think. Cheese. Anything you want, really. Just take it.”

Ten minutes later, Livvy was on her way down the hill, her pockets bulging with things from Sarah’s kitchen. She had a precious pound of coffee, and a half pound of good yellow cheese without a speck of mold. She had two eggs, and best of all, she had the orange from the fruit bowl. The walk took her a long time, downhill being worse than uphill for her knees, but she spent it planning the feast she would prepare for Porter in the morning.

She placed the orange in a saucer, and set it out in imitation of Sarah’s fruit bowl. She hid the coffee behind her kettle, and set the cups ready for the morning. She went to bed early, and slept well, with a tummy full of cheese sandwiches, only waking when the sledgehammers began in the early dawn.

They sounded closer today. She supposed they had discovered another tunnel. The blows rattled her walls, and made the woodstove shimmy on the plank floor.

Muttering instructions to herself, she filled the woodstove and lighted it. She boiled water for coffee, and while it was steeping she peeled the orange into sections, savoring the smell of orange peel. She steamed the eggs in the rest of the water, and when everything was ready, she went across the patch of dirt to Porter’s shack.

She had to wait while he hobbled to the door, and pulled it open. “Mornin’, Porter,” she said.

“Why, Mrs. Sutton,” he said. His voice was rough with sleep. “What brings you here?”

“A feast,” she told him.

It took a bit of persuading, but soon she had Porter in her shack, seated on her only chair, with a cup of fragrant coffee between his shaking hands. She worried he might drop the cup, but he didn’t. He drank it slowly, smiling at her between sips. She sat on her bed as they each ate an egg, then carefully shared out the orange.

At the first taste, Livvy groaned with pleasure. “I haven’t had me an orange in so long.”

“Me neither, Mrs. Sutton. It’s like this is my birthday or something.”

They smiled at each other, two old relics enjoying a good meal. And coffee.

When she had helped Porter back to his shack, Livvy looked up the hill to the playground. She didn’t see anyone there, and she was tired from her climb of the day before. She decided she would rest, though it wasn’t easy with the banging and cracking going on.

The next day, when she had drunk a precious cup of coffee and taken one to Porter, she went out for water and saw someone was in the playground again. It was too far for her to be sure, but she thought it might be Pansy. She took a shawl this time against the cold, and clambered up the steep street.

Pansy ran to meet her. She had her first book with her, the one she had started reading in, and she had an orange in her pocket.
They fell into a routine, Pansy and Livvy, with Sarah’s all-but-invisible support. When the weather was fine, Livvy and Pansy read at one of the picnic tables in the playground. When it was rainy, Livvy labored up the hill, and she and the little girl worked in the warm kitchen. Sarah found more books for her daughter, books she herself could barely read, and Pansy devoured them.

They went on that way for weeks, and it was almost like the old days. Livvy came away each time with cheese or eggs or oranges, sometimes coffee, often apples from beneath the tree in Pansy’s yard. Pansy glowed with enthusiasm. Livvy’s joints eased from being in the warm house so often. Porter flourished, too, in his modest way, with a bit of better food and a cup of coffee each morning.

Then, one afternoon, Livvy looked up from the book in Pansy’s lap and saw a tall blond man staring at the two of them. “What are you doing in my house?” he demanded.

Livvy jumped to her feet, and Pansy did, too, the book falling to the floor. They hadn’t heard the automobile come up the hill. “I’m Olivia Sutton, sir. I—I’m teaching Pansy to read.”

“I’m reading, Papa,” Pansy said in the smallest voice Livvy had heard her use.

“Your mother is teaching you to read,” he said, in a flat voice that made Livvy’s belly tighten, and Pansy shrink against her.

“Sir, Sarah—uh, Miss Sarah—she wasn’t feeling well, and—”

“She’s lazy,” he snapped. “Nobody feels well if they lie in bed all day.”

Livvy made no answer. There was no point. She bent to pick up the book, and laid it softly on the sofa where she and Pansy had been sitting.

Pansy’s papa said, “Did she hire you? Without asking me?”

Livvy had no answer for that, either. She had no way of knowing what Sarah might have spoken to her husband about. She wasn’t hired exactly. She didn’t know what to say, but she could see this was the end.

She tried not to look longingly at the three oranges in the fruit bowl. She didn’t go anywhere near the cupboard where the coffee was kept, or the electric refrigerator where there were always eggs and cheese. She said, “Pansy, I’m gonna have to go now.”

Pansy’s sweet little hand slipped into hers, and squeezed, but she didn’t say a word. Livvy wanted to kiss her, but under her papa’s glare, she didn’t dare. She murmured, “You can read those books to your mama now, Pansy. You know all the words.”

“Sarah can read them for herself,” her father snapped. He stood with his hands in his pockets, watching Livvy walk out the kitchen door as if he was afraid she was going to steal something on her way.

Empty-handed, heavy of heart, Livvy limped her way down the hill to her shack. She didn’t mind so much not bringing back an orange or a couple of eggs. She minded leaving Pansy with a father she was obviously afraid of, and a mother who hadn’t admitted to her husband that she couldn’t teach their daughter to read because she couldn’t read herself.

Porter came out as she crossed the lane. “Good day up the hill, Mrs. Sutton?”

She shook her head. “My little girl’s daddy came home. Wasn’t happy to see me.”

“He didn’t know about you.”

“Guess not.” She trudged toward her door. Her knees had begun to ache in earnest. “I didn’t bring anything this time, Porter. I’m out of coffee, out of cheese—everything. I’m sorry.”

“That don’t matter. You’ve been so generous already. I think I have the fixings for some soup. Would you like some?”

“No, thanks. I’m going to have a lie-down, I think. This is making me sad. My poor little girl.”

“You taught her a lot, I think.”

“I don’t know if it does any good.” She opened her door, and stared into the dim, dusty interior. “It’s not right, Porter. Those people up there with so much. Us down here with nothing.”

“Always things in this world aren’t right, Livvy.”

“Yes. I oughta know that by now.” She lifted her hand to him, and went into her shack.

#

Livvy went to bed without eating anything, though she still had a wedge of dried-out cheese and two slices of bread that weren’t too moldy. She had no appetite. She kept seeing Pansy’s desolate face, and her heart ached all over again. She didn’t know where she would find comfort for this loss. At least when the babies died, she had Butch to hold her, cry with her.

When she fnally fell asleep, it was the thick nightmare-ridden sleep of exhaustion. When the rumbling started, it seemed to be part of her dreams. Not until it got so loud she couldn’t ignore it did she wake fully, sitting up in bed with her quilt clutched to her bosom.

The rumbling grew to a roar. Her shack began to vibrate, then to shake. Gray dust sifted from the ceiling to powder her quilt, her floor, her hair. She scrambled from bed, her painful knees almost giving way. Stiff-legged, she struggled across to her door.
It wouldn’t open, though she shook it and banged on it. Through the dimness, she saw her side walls tilting, pulling loose from the Wall, jiggering her door so it wouldn’t budge.

Rocks began to fall, battering her roof, bouncing against the off-kilter walls. One burst through the growing crack between the shack and the Wall, and rolled across the floor, just missing her bare feet. She thrust her feet into her shoes and began to kick at the door. The noise intensified into a mind-numbing cacophony of falling rocks and cracking wood. She found herself screaming against it, as if her voice could stop the obliteration of her home.

The door finally gave way beneath her kicks. It fell outward, taking the front wall of the shack with it. The side walls, like playing cards in an old stacking game, flared outward and collapsed, shattering into a hundred bits of ancient wood and rusted metal. Livvy made her escape, dashing across the lane with her quilt around her shoulders. When she reached safety, she whirled to gape in horror at the wreck of the shacks.

Hers was flattened, as if a child’s giant foot had stamped it to pieces.

Porter’s had fallen inward.

She shrieked, horrified by the sight. His roof had crashed onto his floor, his side walls collapsed on top of that, and a mound of stones loosened from the Wall had buried the whole mess. Had buried him. People from up and down the lane came running, and frantically tried to lift rocks and planks and bits of old tin, but it was mostly to make themselves feel better, to know they had done all they could. They knew—as Livvy knew—it was too late for Porter.

She sagged to the ground, and pulled her quilt over her head to hide her weeping.

When the sun rose beyond the black bulk of the Wall, an automobile came coasting down the hill, past the playground, past the small houses. It stopped when it reached the lane, where survivors and workers now huddled in the cold, staring at the wreck of the residences. Livvy got to her feet, and turned with the others to watch the Councilman step out of his automobile and stand, hands on hips, surveying the disaster.

It was Pansy’s papa. He looked much as he had the day before, irritated and impatient.

One of the work bosses went up to him, and the two men spoke a few words. Pansy’s father gestured up and down the Wall, and pointed to the section that had collapsed.

Someone said, “At least there’ll be some repair work.”

Someone else said, “Think the Council has any idea why it fell down?”

“New tunnel came through,” someone whispered behind his hand. The whisper was repeated through the crowd.

They fell silent as the Councilman approached them. His lips were pinched. “You people will have to clear out while we get this situation resolved.”

Livvy felt numb with disbelief. Clear out? The relics? She glanced around, but it seemed no one was going to speak. It wasn’t right, and they all knew it. She clutched at her quilt, and stepped forward. “Sir?”

He eyed her without recognition. “What is it?” he snapped.

She felt vulnerable, exposed in her night clothes, but she couldn’t retreat. “Sir, we—the residents—” She couldn’t help emphasizing the word. “We have no place to go.”

“Of course you do,” he said. “Go up to the church. They’ll have cots.”

“Some of these folks can’t climb the hill to the church, sir. They’re gonna need help.”

He blew out an exasperated breath. “Lady, that’s not my problem. My job is to keep this Wall in good repair. To close up the tunnels. To keep everyone safe.”

“Didn’t keep Porter safe,” Livvy muttered, but only to herself. The Councilman was already on the way back to his automobile, his neck stiff with annoyance. In moments he was gone, his auto spinning easily up the steep street.

The repair work began immediately, with the boss shouting orders and men scurrying here and there. Some people from the church arrived to start shepherding the relics up the hill. A few, who would never be able to make the climb, sat right down in the dirt of the lane to wait for whatever would come.

Livvy could make it to the church, but she had no intention of going before they brought Porter out of the wreck. Two workers had already started pounding away at the rubble, rolling stones away when they could, breaking up others, tossing them onto a pile in the lane. Shards of Porter’s few possessions appeared, a saucepan smashed flat, a broom handle in splinters, fragments of a water pitcher. Everything went onto the mound. Most of it would go back into the Wall.

When one of the workers abruptly straightened, calling for the other man to join him, Livvy crossed the lane to see what they had found. The first one caught sight of her. “You should stop there, ma’am. You don’t want to see this.”

His kindness made her eyes sting. “You found him,” she said.

“Friend of yours?”

“Yes. His name was Porter.”

“I’m real sorry, ma’am.”

“Can you tell—” She pressed her fingers to her trembling lips. It was hard to wrench the words from her throat. “Young man, are—are you quite sure he’s dead?”

“Yeah, no doubt about it. If it helps—pretty sure it would have happened fast.”

Livvy shuddered at what it must have been like for poor Porter, the noise, the cracking and crumbling, the full weight of the pitiless Wall crushing out his life. Tears burned her cheeks, and when she put up a hand to brush them away, she remembered she was still in her nightgown, with only her quilt to cover her.

“Ma’am?”

She pulled herself together enough to meet the young man’s sympathetic gaze. He said, “Listen, you can’t stand here like that. How’s about my wife brings you some clothes? Helps you up to the church?”

She could have accepted his offer. She could have accepted the clothes, gone to the church, slept on a cot and listened to sermons.
She glared at the Wall, suddenly furious with the way it had ruled her life. The young man went on talking, but she didn’t hear him. She didn’t see anything but the behemoth of stone and steel and wood, the relics of civilization. She wanted to pound it with her fists, shout it down, smash it with her own stubborn spirit.

Then she saw it. The opening. The mouth of a tunnel gaping behind the wreckage of Porter’s shack. It was littered with scree and the flotsam that jammed the interior of the Wall. It was little more than a crawlspace, dirty and dark and narrow.

But there was light on the other side. It wasn’t much, a window glimpsed at a distance, but it shone with light. Sunshine. It called to Livvy’s heart.

She started toward the opening. The young worker seized her hand. “Lady, you can’t go in there! It’s not safe!”

“Why?” she said, not looking at him, focusing on the tunnel and its promise of light at the other end.

“It could fall in at any moment,” he said.

“I don’t care.”

“Can’t you just wait—my wife—”

She pulled her hand free, gently, and glanced into his kind face. He was as dark as she was, but young—so young. A wife. Maybe a family. His future before him. If he had a future, that is, working on the endless Wall, living in its cruel shadow.

“It’s good of you to worry about an old woman,” she told him. “But I think I’m gonna take my chances.” She started off again, picking her way over the broken bits of Porter’s life. “I really want some sunshine,” she muttered, not even pretending to talk to anyone but herself. “I’m so tired of living in the shade.”

The going was rough. Her old shoes slipped on jagged stones, and broke through rotted bits of wood. She was still in her night clothes. She hadn’t brushed her teeth or combed her hair, but she was on her way.

When she wriggled her way into the opening, the dank smell of old dirt and cold stones met her nostrils. In places she had to suck in her stomach to sidle through. The Wall groaned and cracked around her, threatening to stop her once and for all. She pressed on.

The light ahead grew brighter. Hands were picking at that little window, widening it, pulling away bits of the Wall. Her heart thudded at the thought of the people there, maybe smugglers, possibly the adversaries she had been warned about since her infancy.

“No turning back now, old woman,” she grunted as she squeezed around a chunk of ancient link fencing. “Don’t you chicken out now.”

Above her the Wall grumbled and shifted, trying to hold her in its clutches like some great dragon guarding its lair, coveting its relics, loathe to let even one escape.

A shaft of unimpeded sunlight broke into the tunnel on the far side, and with it a gust of fresh air. Heads joined the hands she had seen, silhouettes against the brilliance. Enemies? Perhaps.

But the real monster was the Wall, and though it began to shake, and rain detritus down on her head, she would not give in. She pushed forward, scraping her knees and shoulders, losing one shoe, kicking off the other to maintain her balance. She was sure she was bleeding in places, but it didn’t matter. One way or another, Olivia Sutton was going to be free.

Did she imagine it, or did the breeze from the other side smell of oranges?

2 Responses to “RELICS”

  1. Janice

    Thank you for sharing this. We see something similar every day but don’t give it a thought. From now on I will think.

    I have enjoyed your books. You make them so real when I stop reading and come back to my life it takes a few minutes to let go of your world.

  2. Louise Marley

    Thank you so much, Janice! Nice to hear from you.

Comments are closed.