Sissy caught sight of a hawk landing firmly on one of the four-by-fours that secured the privacy fence around her property, narrowly missing the razor wire balled on the top, and her heart rushed with anxiety. She wanted to protect the few squirrels, cats, and songbirds that spent time in her garden, but she knew the predator had to eat as well as they did. She sat back in her chair and closed her eyes.
She stood slowly and shut the blinds. She busied herself with the list, making sure to grab a hat and some gloves, and pouring half a cup in the animals’ water bowl. She stepped outside and rolled down the sleeves of a thick linen shirt and pulled the gloves on to cover her hands. She grabbed a bandana from her back pocket, decorated in bouncing cats and birds, and tied it behind her head, covering most of her face. She walked across the sandy garage and lifted the hood of the ancient jeep, ensuring there was water and oil. She slammed the hood and walked to the back of the vehicle, looking through the window to see three five-gallon jugs of water mixed in with some tools.
“Okay,” she said, donning the hat and setting her sunglasses in place. “To town.” She climbed in the Jeep and reversed, backing down a long driveway and checking the status of her plants along the way. She parked and jumped out of the car, pulling the hat down further, and walked to the gate. She pushed open the thick wooden doors and was nearly blinded by the white light, she tilted her head, watching the toes of her boots, and pulled down the thick leather brim. She climbed into the idling vehicle, backed out, and pulling up the brake, she ran back and shut the gate.
The difference between her own yard, sheltered and green, and the outside world always took her breath and she paused, leaning on the warm metal of the hood for a moment. She loosened the top button of her shirt and pulled another bandana free, wiping her forehead. “To town,” she whispered and stood up, shoving the cloth into her back pocket. She climbed onto the cracked leather, adjusting the visor to block the harsh light, and released the brake, putting the car in gear.
The blacktop had disintegrated into tar rock, pebble, and drifting sand a few years ago and Sissy worked to hold onto the steering wheel as she bounced across the piles. She looked at the barren land that used to hold a huge house, equipped with three working fireplaces, and sighed. She remembered the Regopoulis family who had been her neighbors for as long as she could recall, four generations lived in the same house, but now there was no evidence that the house had ever existed at all. It’s like it was never even there, she thought. The last she heard from the Regopoulis kids she went to school with, Rosa and Jimmy, they were doing well in the city and each had a child.
Sissy bumped down the broken road, finally reaching the corner, and turned toward town, grateful that the concrete held up better under the heat than the blacktop. Her view seemed endless, so unlike what she remembered from childhood. Sometimes on her drive to town she imagined that she was living on another planet as she gazed at the empty landscape. The houses, stores, schools, trees and hills from her past had been erased as though they had never been, what had once been a productive town was now nothing more than a deserted, flat land, thick with blowing sand, a white hot sun, and not even a cactus to make up for the loss.
Driving on the concrete was faster and easier than the broken blacktop, but she knew that it wouldn’t be long before the road would no longer be so easily traveled. She gazed out the window, remembering the houses and storefronts, and looking at the ground. “There has to be something left,” she said. “Even though it looks flat, it doesn’t mean I won’t hit the foundation of a house or a chimney.” She glanced through the pocked windshield, dodging a familiar pothole and noticing it had grown since the last time she passed. She imagined the town as it once was, studying the terrain, and fixing in her mind the old paths and back roads that she may need to know to get to town in the future.
The sun glared, bouncing off the dome of the city, and blinding her. Despite the black market tint of the windows, the visor, glasses, and leather hat that she’d acquired by trading an illegal kitten, her eyes watered under the white-hot reflection. Her foot fell off the accelerator and she paused on the side of the broken road. She checked her back pocket for her permit and then double-checked the monetary card. She pulled out the list, wagering in her mind the cost of the items she needed, the cost of parking, and then checked her balance again.
“I got it,” she smiled, and pulled the silk bag from under the seat, stowing her cards inside. She threw her hat behind the seat, set her glasses in the glove box, and attempted to fight the glare to check out her appearance in the mirror. She smoothed back a few hairs that had escaped the intricate braid and began unbuttoning her thick linen top. She untied her boots, pulling them off her feet, and tossing them in the back. She reached for the skirt, protected in plastic, as she shimmied out of hardy denim. She managed to slide into the skirt without having to step out of the vehicle. “Yay,” she muttered. “Thank God for small favors,” she said, buttoning the cloth behind her back.
The last time she was in town yellow and green were the proper colors, and she prayed that they hadn’t changed the color scheme in the three weeks since her last visit. She liked yellow and green, but a couple months ago the colors were red and black, she wasn’t such a fan of those colors and wore them simply to be able to purchase the things she needed.
She made sure that her clothes were adjusted properly and pulled forward slowly. She entered the first checkpoint, the dome blocking the sun beaming in her windows and heating the Jeep, and showed her papers. The young man, blue eyed and pink cheeked, waved her to the next station. She showed her monetary card and a bit of cleavage at the next checkpoint. The guard glanced at her card, and then stared at her chest for a moment before waving her through to the next level. The next guard inspected her tag and allowed dogs to run around her vehicle. “Have you arranged for a conveyance?” he asked, scanning her monetary card in a small device he carried on his belt.
“Yes,” she said, smiling her brightest smile.
He handed back her cards, his eyes running over her in a way that made her feel dirty, and said, “Second level, slot forty-two.”
“Thank you,” she said and smiled. The smile disappeared as she pulled into the towering, nearly empty, parking deck, but then she glanced at the cameras every thirty feet and smiled again. She parked and stepped out of the vehicle, checking her appearance in the glass. It must still be yellow and green or they wouldn’t have let me through, she thought, smoothing back a few more hairs and applying powder and lipstick. She took a deep breath, turned to the exit, and aware of the cameras filming her, held the smile.
Sissy placed the canvas bag and yellow silk bag over her shoulder, following the signs to the exit. She stepped out of the tunnel, in a familiar place, and armed herself to take the next step. She paused, glanced at the camera set in a tree above her, and stepped into the range of a streetlight that did dual duty. The light pole illuminated the area, but it also had a message to relay. You could only hear the message if you were in a twelve foot radius and there was only six feet open on the path that lead to the city. She stepped into its reach, looking at the artificial sky above. “Beginning four-twenty-seven the colors will be pink and silver. Pink and silver on four-twenty-seven.” Sissy stepped out of the mental intrusion and looked back to the sky. Outside of the dome, it was a wasteland; the sky was white, hot, and killing. Inside the dome, the sky was usually blue and the rain came when scheduled, conveniently announced on TV, Internet, and radio, and there was an ever-present gentle breeze filling the air with the scent of honey suckle and jasmine. There was no trash on the streets, no beggars or homeless asking for help or money, no stray animals, and the walks, yards, glass, doorknobs, and stairs all gleamed as though recently cut, raked, polished, and scrubbed.
She turned to the right, passing a clothing store, and the mental beam erupted in her mind again, “Monday, four-twenty-seven the colors are pink and silver. Sale. Sale. S..” She stepped out of the beam and sighed, smiling at the camera perched on a Magnolia branch. She waited on the corner, hoping that Rusty hadn’t forgotten her, and watched the rickshaws and people pass, listening to snippets of conversation.
“I love it when they change the colors,” a woman, carrying several shopping bags, explained to a friend. “I get so bored with wearing the same colors for so long.”
“I know, I’ve seen enough yellow and green to last me a lifetime, now we just have to wait for four-twenty-seven to wear our new clothes. That’s always the hardest part.”
“Well, it gives us something to look forward to, plus then we have a week of Color Balls, those are always so much fun. The dancing, music, food, wine, and fashion, it’s so romantic!”
The women drifted out of earshot and Sissy looked for Rusty’s rickshaw among those passing. No cars were allowed in the dome and lone individuals were permitted to walk, although it was frowned upon, but she needed to pick up more items than she could carry. All the passing rickshaws were yellow and green and would have to be painted to the new color scheme before their permits would be renewed. Some rickshaw owners had several vehicles making it easier for them to get a jump on the new colors, but most would lose a couple days of work waiting for the paint to dry, luckily though, they had Color Balls to attend.
She recognized Rusty’s out of control curls as she saw him headed in her direction; she stepped to the curb and waited. “Sorry I’m late, Sissy. The last customer…” he shook his head. He helped her onto the wooden seat and put a yellow blanket over her lap. “Got a long list today?”
“Not so long, but heavy, I’m stocking up.”
“What’s our first stop?”
“The yarn store, I’m still working on that baby blanket.” She winked. “How is Amanda feeling?”
He grinned and ran his hand through unruly hair. “She’s amazing! I can barely wrap my arms around her she’s so big! It took us so long to get the permit, I can’t believe her pregnancy is almost done and the baby is almost here.” He climbed on the bicycle part of the contraption and began peddling.
Sissy sat back and observed her surroundings. The sidewalks were a sea of yellow and green, blurring with the awnings hung over storefronts and street signs. She sighed, knowing the next time she came to town the streets would be a wash of pink and silver. There were few animals and no birds in the dome, except for the holographic ones and piped in bird song, and only a select group in the city could afford the permits for a dog or cat. Luckily, she still had breeding cats on her property and a black market kitten went a long way to supplement her meager allotment.
Carson Pharmaceuticals owned the entire domed city and those that chose to live in the city were regularly tested to ensure they had an adequate level of the drug in their system and when the colors changed, the required pill also changed. The black and red period was a bad time in the city, the yellow and green period had gone better than expected, and Sissy could only wonder what the pink and silver time had in store for the residents of Carsonville.
Rusty pulled to the curb and helped her out of the rickshaw. “I’ll be quick,” she said. “And then we need to go to the market.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled and leaned against the vehicle.
She made her selections quickly, picking out four balls of blue yarn, surprised she could find it in the barrels of yellow and green, just as pink and silver were being stocked, and used her monetary card to pay for her purchases. She stepped out on the street, shoving her purchases in an approved canvas bag that bore the logo of Carson Pharmaceuticals. “What about dogs?” Rusty asked, helping her into the seat. “Do you see any more breeding dogs out there?”
“I haven’t seen a puppy in years,” she whispered. Black market dogs could get you jail time. “Last puppy I saw was Bella, and although she’s healthy and I have a couple males, she hasn’t gotten pregnant.”
“How do you live out there?”
“It’s not so bad, Rusty. I have water, plants, and animals. And I can wear any color I like and not take the required drugs.”
“That red and black period, I lost three friends and me and Amanda almost broke up,” he said softly and shook his head, covering her lap with a blanket. “I think our population went down by a good three hundred. Think you can get us a kitten?”
“Probably, but are you sure you want to take such a risk? Especially with a new baby?”
“I’d like my child to know about life before the change.”
“Think about it, okay? Talk to Amanda, I would hate myself if your world was screwed up because of me.”
“You’re good folk, Sissy. We’ll think about it.” He climbed onto the seat and pulled away from the curb. “Market next, right?”
“Yes.” She watched the people moving on the street, most carrying shopping bags preparing for the new color change, and saw a couple storeowners pulling down their awnings, wondering how they could afford a new awning every time the decision was announced for the new requirements. She searched the sidewalk for children and only saw two. There were strict rules about having children and unexpected pregnancies were waylaid by sterilization at birth, or at acceptance of living in the city. The process of being approved to have children and then the reversal of sterilization was long, most didn’t even try to apply, but those who did had a rough road before them. It took Rusty and Amanda ten years, more paperwork than she could imagine, and many meetings with the board before they were accepted, and then the surgeries. Rusty always asked her how she lived “out there” and she always restrained herself from asking how they lived in the dome.
She had no man, no desire to procreate, she had enough work with the land, growing her own food, and keeping up with the animals. She knew she was luckier than most as her property had a well with an aquifer underneath. As the world outside of her gates grew hotter, dryer, and the sand storms blew down everything, somehow her property, the piece of land that had raised four generations, survived. Her great grandparents had installed an irrigation system long before the world changed, and it had mostly been forgotten until she discovered the strange knobs, dials and levers in the back of the well house. The water, the most valuable thing in the new world, came out of the pipes cold, refreshing, and clean, but she feared that Carsonville had discovered the deep aquifer and would soon drain it dry. But she had enough to worry about, and had to trust that if that happened, or when it happened, she would be long dead and buried.
Rusty stopped at the curb, beside the yellow and green tent tops. “Do you need a hand?”
“Yes, I think I do,” she said, following required Carsonville convention and waiting for him to take her hand and help her down to the ground.
“Okay, let me lock up.” He stowed her bag of yarn under the bench seat, locking it, and then locked the wheels with a metal device.
Sissy took a deep breath before stepping into the shade under the tents. The market both illuminated and hid the poverty of Carsonville. The sellers, dressed in the appropriate colors, were emaciated and barked out their goods as she passed. It reminded her of the pictures her parents showed her of festivals, circuses, and fairs of a long ago era. She walked past the tents selling material of pink and silver, bypassed the tables with small bowls of fish, the only pet deemed appropriate without a permit, and stopped at a table with bags of wheat, rice, and flax flour. She bought a twenty-pound bag of mixed flour, noticing that the price had increased since the last time, and Rusty carried it as she sought out some sugar. Cane sugar was rare, beet sugar was what most people consumed, and she talked to three merchants before she found an acceptable ten-pound bag. She didn’t really use the sugar for herself, but somehow the humming birds still passed over the barren earth and she felt obligated to give them a treat.
It was funny that she worried more about the animals than herself, but her family was mostly gone, she was the last, making a hopeless stand in the white washed desert and felt the call to help nature. She shook her head, as though nature needed her help. Okay, she admitted, moving to the next booth as Rusty carried her purchases; it was a selfish desire to see the earth as she once remembered it, to see it still producing, and to see the animals thriving. On her land she had three goats, uncountable chickens, a dozen or so cats, four dogs, some elusive lizards, catfish and tadpoles in the pond, and a desert tortoise that she found attempting to push down her gate to gain admittance. She also had a myriad of birds and squirrels that she couldn’t really feed, but kept the baths full for their enjoyment.
“Thief! Thief! Thief!” A voice cried out and Rusty grabbed her, pushing her against one of the vendor tables, and covered her body with his own.
A hopelessly thin man, wearing the appropriate colors tinged by filth, ran by with a small bag of beans in his hand. The chant began slowly, and then grew to a crescendo. “Suspend him, suspend him, suspend him!”
The man was stopped before he made it to the exit by two police officers dressed in yellow and green, they grabbed him roughly, shaking the bit of food from his hand, and dragged him to the street.
“I’m sorry, Sissy,” Rusty muttered, pulling away from her, but still shielding her body from the rushing crowds determined to see the suspension. “I think we’re stuck for a bit.”
She nodded. “It’s not your fault, Rusty. I have a bit more shopping to do.” She searched her mind for anything else she may need. She wandered, being shadowed by the rickshaw driver, toward the back of the tent city, listening to the cheers from the street. Chill bumps erupted on her skin, despite the climate controlled dome.
“He shouldn’t have stolen, he has all he needs,” Rusty said.
Sissy briefly shook her head and made no reply. No one has all they need here, she thought, no one. They had lots of rules, color changes, permission slips and permits, and drugs, but no one had all they needed in Carsonville. She approached the last booth, purchasing a few buttons and seeds that were not guaranteed to grow, and waited until she saw the hoards of people moving back inside laughing and joking about the suspension.
“It looks like it’s over, are you ready?”
She nodded and moved slowly toward the exit.
They stepped out of the tent to see a body, dressed in dingy yellow and green, hanging from a street light right over Rusty’s rickshaw. She tried not to look, but her eyes kept betraying her, and she observed the green cloth sandals on the feet hanging just a couple feet over her head. Rusty helped her into the rickshaw, covering her lap with the blanket, and stowing her items on the floor.
“Don’t forget the color change,” he said, unlocking the wheels.
She nodded, trying not to look at the emaciated body swinging above her in the gentle, artificial wind.
“Yeah, Carson clothes.”
She tried to halt her eyes from straying, but they kept darting to the poor, dead man hanging above. She couldn’t stop looking at the swinging feet in cheap green sandals, and even as Rusty pulled the rickshaw away, she eyes stayed on the dirty toes.
“I don’t know why he was stealing, we have everything we need here,” Rusty said.
Sissy restrained herself from speaking. Evidently, the dead man stealing a handful of food didn’t have everything he needed, she thought, but knew she couldn’t talk to Rusty, he was excited about the birth of his child. He couldn’t see himself or his child or his wife hanging above the street with dirty feet and cheap shoes.
Rusty stopped at the curb in front of Carson Clothes. “I’ll watch your things,” he said, helping her down.
“Thanks,” she said, standing on the sidewalk and looking at the deep blue sky above that no longer existed in nature. “I’ll be quick.”
“Take your time, Sissy, you are my favorite customer.” He winked.
She stepped into the store and picked a few items off the racks. She chose a couple tanks, pink and silver, and then pulled down a couple skirts. The only choices available were tanks, blouses, and skirts, women were forbidden to wear pants in Carsonville. She looked at the display of hats, but they were cheap, thin cotton, and could never stand up to the world outside of the dome. She walked over to the shoe display, filled with designs in the new color. She shunned the outrageously high heels and settled on a couple pairs of flat sandals. She took her purchases to the counter and paid, scraping by with just cents left in her allotment.
She met Rusty at the curb. “Okay, I’m done.”
He settled her into the seat and headed off to the parking deck on the east end of town. He parked, locking the conveyance, and threw the bags of flour and sugar over his shoulders, following her through the maze of mental messages to her Jeep. “Three weeks, right?”
“I hope so, Rusty. And if I don’t make it back, let Amanda know how much I love her and how excited I am for both of you.”
“You’re talking like I won’t see you again.”
She sighed, remembering the swaying body. “You know, Rusty, one day we won’t see each other again.” She lowered her voice, looking at the cameras overhead. “But you know, you, Amanda, and the new one always have a place with me.”
“I’ve only been out of the dome once, Sissy, since it happened, I don’t like it out there.”
“I know,” she said, and lightly touched his arm. “But you’re always welcome.”
He straightened, looking in the back of her car, and then at the white dust on the outside. “I’ll see you in three weeks, regular time, same place.”
She nodded. “Thanks, Rusty.”
“It’s the least I can do for my baby sister. I love you.”
“Love you, too.” She wanted to hug him, but the cameras hung above.
Sissy settled in the car, grateful when the engine sprung to life, and backed out of the slot. She made her way through the checkpoints, pulling her hat from the back and grabbing her sunglasses. She pulled out of the dome, parking on the side of the broken road, the setting sun blocked by the unnatural eruption on the earth, and changed back into jeans, boots, long sleeves and gloves.
Dressed for the unchanging weather, Sissy pulled into the wasteland happy and excited to be heading home.