Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 1
[Author’s Note: This is the first installment of my new novel, Commonwealth. If you like what you see and want to read the next part today, it’s already up on Patreon. You can sign up for as little as $1/month. —Adam]
It was a hot, muggy night in May, and it was snowing again.
Rae cursed under her breath. She had showered at work where it was free, hoping to save time when she got home. The evening forecast had predicted clear skies. But the wind had shifted, and heavy flakes were drifting down on New York City. In the illuminated neon air, they danced and flickered like static as they fell.
One landed on her shoulder. She instinctively brushed it off, but it left a black, greasy smear on her shirt. She sighed.
Her apartment was a few blocks from the subway exit. She walked quickly and kept her head down, deliberately not looking at the billboards that filled the air on every side. But some had audio, impossible to ignore, and her traitorous eyes kept darting glances at the images that glowed and changed in an endless cascade of light and color.
“New Tar-Sands Pipeline Breaks Ground,” read the crawl on one, which showed bulldozers and excavators biting into pine trees while cranes maneuvered heavy sections of pipe into place. As Rae walked past, the screen changed to the image of a newscaster. His blond hair was styled into a perfect coif, his teeth were dazzlingly white. His huge face was as flawlessly handsome as the hundreds of other identical TV personalities who seemed as if they had rolled off an assembly line somewhere.
“…and the stock market rose to record highs,” he was saying, “as investors were buoyed by the Energy Secretary’s assessment. Now, for the latest on the battle for the Pacific Northwest, we go to…”
The crawl changed to “16 More Deaths Fighting Oregon Insurgency.” The screen showed a vision of hell on earth: a war-torn landscape, pocked with shell holes and laced with rusty tangles of barbed wire, beneath skies the color of ash. Pallid white bodies lay broken and sprawled in the mud. As the image panned past, men in uniform surged from a trench, waving guns as they charged an unseen enemy. Their faces were twisted in rage and fear, the soundless expressions magnified to monstrosity by the giant screen.
“…gained ground,” said the newscaster, his voice again intruding on Rae’s awareness. “For a statement on these developments, we turn to the Secretary of Morale.”
The screen changed again, to show a striking woman looking straight at the viewer. She had short black hair, angular cheekbones, a jaw like a granite cliff, and dark, hollow eyes that burned with the fierce zeal of a fire-and-brimstone prophet. She was sitting before a blue backdrop embossed with a pattern of gold dollar signs.
The chyron read: “Asha Remington – U.S. Morale Secretary.“
Half a dozen other screens simultaneously changed to show the same image. When she spoke, her voice reverberated from one side of the street to the other.
“We mourn these brave volunteers, who fell while defending a free economy. They willingly gave their lives to protect capitalism and free trade, knowing that these are the only values that make human life possible. By this valorous action, they proved themselves to be supremely rational individuals, and the price they paid shall not be in vain. We did not begin this war, but we can and will strike back decisively at the gangs of thugs and killers who seek to deprive American citizens of our property and our lives. The right to self-defense…”
The voice faded as Rae turned a corner. This street was dark and quiet, one of the few not festooned with billboards. But it was no respite for her, because this block bordered the East River.
The river itself was invisible, hidden behind high concrete barriers. But a blacker shadow rose against the skyline, a spiderweb of towers and girders visible only as a void against the scattered lights of Roosevelt Island and Queens. It was the crumbling, rusting hulk of the Queensboro Bridge. The sight brought on a dull ache of memory, the reminder of failure.
Water sloshed in the darkness, and Rae heard the putter of a propeller and the slap-slap of water against a boat’s hull. A foghorn gave a short, loud blare.
Another garbage scow, she thought, going to dump its load in the ocean. At least this one isn’t carrying sewage sludge. Last time, the stink wafted over the whole Upper East Side.
The snow kept coming, falling faster and heavier. By the time Rae got to her building, she was covered in greasy black stains. Her boots left sooty prints on the floorboards as she punched in the door code, passed through the foyer, and climbed the four flights of creaking stairs to her apartment.
She turned her key in the lock and pushed the door open. It resisted the push, forcing her to shove harder, and once she had it open, she saw why. A heap of junk mail had built up, accumulating under her mail slot until it wedged the door.
She picked up the flier on top, a crudely printed broadsheet that read: “Visit New Zealand – The Last Unspoiled Corner of Earth!“
Barely a tree left this side of the Mississippi and they still send this stuff, she thought.
Rae clicked on a lamp, illuminating her small, dingy studio apartment. Its walls and ceiling were rough white plaster. The floorboards were covered with soft, woven black and brown rugs – one of the few indulgences she permitted herself. Along one wall was a blue futon, below a shelf that held yellowed, precious paperback books: romances, murder mysteries, classic sci-fi. In the corner was a computer desk and a TV on a stand. A poster tacked to the wall above the computer, its corners tattered, showed a picture of a starry night sky. Along the other wall was a small kitchen alcove with a refrigerator, a stove, a rickety card table and chairs, and an even smaller bathroom alcove.
The front wall had two tall windows that, when the apartment was built, would have looked out on the street. Now they looked out on nothing but a blank grayness, divided into a grid by almost invisible black lines. It was the back of the giant video billboard that had been affixed to the facade of Rae’s building.
All in all, it’s not so bad, she thought, surveying the room in the warm light of the lamp. She heard the words in her father’s voice. Be grateful for what you have. Lots of people have it worse.
She shoveled the junk mail into the trash, then stripped out of her dirty clothes, discarding them in the hamper. On bare feet, she padded to the bathroom, swiped her credit card in the reader, got into the shower and pulled the curtain.
Cool water sluiced down, rinsing the grime from her hair. She tried to wash quickly, and not just because of the water meter set into the wall whose numbered dials were clicking over. This was her second shower today, and New York’s municipal water often ran brown with sediment or left an oily film behind that made her curls tangled and brittle.
As soon as she felt clean, she turned the water off. Clad in a towel, she pulled a frozen dinner from the fridge, peeled back the foil, swiped her card again and put her meal in the microwave to defrost. She glanced at the TV, decided against it, and switched her computer on as she spooned food into her mouth.
The screen flickered to life, displaying a message – “Welcome, Rae – Account Balance: $27.35” – then cleared, showing her desktop.
She clicked on the icon to read her e-mail. A list of junk messages filled the screen:
From: Male Enhancement RE: She'll love the new you From: Online Pharmacy RE: Soothing cough syrup, now with heroin! From: Home Defense RE: Protect your castle with lethal security From: email@example.com RE: Payday loans, low 300% APR From: work from home RE: Get out of debt today From: American Tobacco RE: Hey kids! From: get rich quick RE: Guaranteed high returns From: Build Muscle Fast RE: Get Results with Anabolic Steroids! From: mr richards esq RE: CLAIM YOUR PAYMENT From: Seek the Garden RE: Secrets to financial freedom within From: Online Pharmacy RE: Low prices on drugs, no Rx needed From: custom bunkers RE: Your own luxury fortified compound From: eGunMart RE: Clearance sale on AK-47s From: precious metals RE: Buy gold and silver before the crash
She clicked a button to purge the spam. The junk messages disappeared, leaving behind those the software identified as legitimate. The first one read:
From: Will Anton RE: Free for coffee?
Rae deleted it without reading, then went on to the next:
From: Shady Rest Nursing Home RE: Your bill due
The next one was also a bill, as was the next. With a frown, she flagged them to deal with later.
I should be able to cover them this month. Probably.
But the last one brought a smile to her face:
From: Zoe Kolettis RE: This week's potluck
She opened the message, which merely read:
Tomorrow night, the usual time? Your place?
Rae composed a reply:
You know it. I've got some recipes I've been itching to try.
She sent it, spent a while idly browsing, then paid the bills it seemed unwise to put off any longer. Deciding she had nothing else to do that night, she shut down her computer – “Account Balance: $25.32” – got into her night clothes, and spent an hour sitting in bed and reading. When she had grown calm and felt sleep creeping up on her, she clicked off the lamp, lay down and closed her eyes.
Rae felt as if she had been asleep only an instant when she was startled awake by a shrill jangle from her phone. Groggily, she picked it up. There was a text alert on the screen, headlined “Owen,” which said only:
Her eyelids were heavy, and she felt an impulse to ignore it. Instead, she typed a brief reply. Then she lay back and drifted, half-asleep, until she heard a key turn in her lock.
Footsteps crossed the darkened room.
Her eyes closed, Rae smiled as someone lifted the covers. A warm body got into bed with her, pressed up against her.
Other lips sought hers out, then moved down, nuzzling her ear, trailing a line of hot breath down her neck. She let out a shuddering gasp.
Hands tugged at her clothes, pulling her t-shirt up and over her head. More awake now, she cooperated, helping to pull her underwear down and kick it away.
The tempo increased, the other body tensing and moving against hers. In her drowse, it felt as if there were hands caressing her body everywhere at once, each touch like a burning brand. A finger slid between her legs, and she gave a soft cry of pleasure as it probed and teased.
The hand withdrew. The other body shifted position, climbing on top of her. She felt the man’s weight pressing her down, smelled the sweat on his skin, a musk like earth and leather and smoke.
He gently moved her legs apart, and she felt him push into her. He found a comfortable rhythm and pumped in and out. His breath hissed on her shoulder.
Rae groaned, and she felt him smile against her neck. The man increased the tempo of his movement, until his body went rigid. He gasped, panted.
He relaxed. He rolled off her, lying next to her in a sweaty tangle of sheets. She sought his hand, found it, gave it a squeeze. He squeezed back.
They lay side by side in the blood-warm darkness. The only sounds were their soft breathing, the faint and far-away noises of street traffic, and the click-click-whir as her fan reached the end of its arc, halted and swept back to the other side.
After an unmeasurable time, the man’s breathing changed to the slow rhythm of slumber. Rae lay calmly and listened, feeling peaceful and content. She was unaware of it when sleep claimed her as well.
The beep-beep-beep of her phone alarm brought Rae back to consciousness. In an automatic motion, she reached out and thumbed the screen to silence it. She sat up in bed, pushing the sheets off.
It was morning. During the day, when the billboard was turned off, it was translucent. A hazy light filtered through and suffused her apartment, making dust motes dance in the air. There was an empty space next to her in bed, the imprint of a body, but she was alone.
As last night came flooding back, she glimpsed her clothing crumpled on the floor. She had fallen asleep naked. A blush warmed her cheeks, but she couldn’t resist a smile of secret, smug delight.
She went into the bathroom, swiped her card to start the water, emptied her bladder, splashed her face and brushed her teeth. From her tiny closet, she selected underwear, a light cotton tank top, a pair of well-worn and much-loved jeans.
Last of all, she put on her heavy steel-toed boots and picked up a metal toolbox from where she had left it by the door. Once painted fire-engine red, it had faded to a dull rusty color. Its casing was stained, splattered with drips of paint, dented and scratched. Rae carried it like a medieval knight might carry his sword and shield.
She went downstairs and out. Dawn was rosy in the east; the sunrise made bright streaks in a pale pearly sky. It gilded the buildings on her street, all silent and shut up tight.
This was the time she liked best. New York City never slept, not really. But after the pulse of the midnight hours – after the dive bars and warehouse raves, the fluorescent glare of 24-hour stores and the neon billboards blasting their messages into the dark – the dawn was an interval of peace, a short pause until the morning’s traffic and bustle spilled out. In the quiet hour in between, she could pretend for a little while that the city was all her own.
A few blocks from her apartment, past the blessedly darkened and silent billboards, was the entrance to the Second Avenue subway. In the midst of urban decay, surrounded by boarded-up buildings, overflowing trash cans and burnt-out, abandoned cars on rutted and potholed streets, it was an island of order. The green globe lamps glowed with a steady light. The lettering of the sign was sharp and clear.
That impression continued as she descended the stairs to the platform and swiped through the turnstile. The white-tiled walls gleamed as if scrubbed; the inlaid mosaic signs sparkled; the beams supporting the ceiling wore a fresh coat of yellow paint. Even the pipes and cables that ran along the wall seemed polished. The tracks that ran off in both directions, into the darkness of the tunnel, were clean and free of litter.
I had something to do with that, she thought with pride.
Despite the early hour, a crowd of commuters was waiting for the train. Rae glanced up and down the platform, feeling an unfamiliar sensation of patriotism. She loved the subways; they were the most democratic institution left in the city. They moved everyone, from janitors and garbagemen to Wall Street financiers and mayors.
In that moment’s glance, she took in two middle-aged women, one white and one Asian, in nurses’ blue scrubs. There was an older, balding white man in a suit and glasses, perusing a newspaper. Three tall black teenagers in jerseys, sneakers and shorts bounced a basketball among themselves. Next to them, a quiet brown-skinned girl with earbuds in was absorbed in a book. A South Asian man in the scruffy jeans and baggy shirt of a programmer played games on his phone. A young Arab woman in a hijab seemed contemplative, focused inward. A white teenager with studs in his ears, eyebrows and lip and a ragged black shirt with an anarchists’ logo glared sullenly at the world. It went on and on, people of every race and every age, a blended cross-section of humanity.
Of course, not everyone was headed to work or school. Ranged along the walls, between the omnipresent video billboards and ads, was a throng of panhandlers and buskers. A dozen hand-lettered cardboard signs told tales of woe; a soulful young man played a guitar with an upturned hat in front of him; another banged out a drum solo with sticks on upside-down plastic buckets. Some rattled cups of coins; some held out pleading hands. Their voices blended together into a cacophony as the commuters passed them by without a second glance.
Well, we can’t solve every problem, Rae admitted to herself.
Within a few minutes, there was a clatter and a whip of wind, the glare of a headlight from the tunnel. The southbound train pulled into the station, the doors hissed open. Rae stepped into the car and was on her way.
The train rattled south, with digital signs and recorded announcements marking each station as they pulled into it (“72nd Street… 59th Street… 34th Street…“). It was crowded at first, but at each successive stop, more people got off than got on, filtering out from the uptown residential neighborhoods to their destinations in midtown and downtown.
After a while, Rae was one of the last remaining people in the car. There were just a few other passengers, mostly men and women coming home from overnight shifts, whose heads lolled in their seats as they fought sleep.
The train pulled away from the latest station and picked up speed. The lights of the car buzzed, then flickered, then darkened.
They shot out of the tunnel and into a station. But the train didn’t slow, didn’t stop. Rae glanced at the window.
The station they were rocketing through was dark, lit only by sullen emergency lights. The platform was vacant. Where the other stations had been immaculate, this one was strewn with garbage. Broken tiles peeled off the walls, which were slimy with mold and overgrowth. The stairway that led to the street was bricked up.
The overhead voice announced with robotic calm, “East 14th Street. Reclamation Zone.“
Leaving the abandoned station behind, they shot back into the tunnel. The lights came on again. Rae breathed out, an almost-inaudible sigh of relief.
They passed just a few more stations, all clean and well-lit, though there were almost no people waiting to get on this far south.
Finally, the train slowed to a halt. The car shuddered, then let out a chuff of steam.
The PA system announced, “City Hall. Boro Offices.“
The doors slid open. Hefting her toolbox, Rae stepped out, pushed through a turnstile, and climbed the stairs into the light.
Lower Manhattan clung to a remnant of the city’s former glory. Corporate lawyers in expensive suits streamed in and out of the Classical courthouses, domed and pillared and carved in stone, and the Brutalist federal buildings, like stark concrete blocks. Armed guards stood watch in booths ringed by anti-traffic bollards. Black limousines nosed down the old, narrow streets. To the north, the cloud-scraping towers of Billionaires’ Row were a backdrop.
And up ahead, her destination. It rose above the warehouses that were its neighbors: a colossus of a building with walls of cyclopean stone blocks, inhumanly large, like a fortress erected against the rising tide of ruin and decay. Three smokestacks, banded in red and white, belched black clouds into the sky.
Two huge bas-relief figures stood like sentries on either side of an enormous double door. One, labeled “Industry,” wielded a pickax, while the other, “Transit,” held up a stoplight like a lantern. A legend on the lintel above and between them read: “SWITCHING STATION NO. 1.”
To be continued…
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