Saturday
Jul262014

The Old Reactor

By David Ohle


Dzanc Books
September 2014
978-1936873562


 

A mile out from Point Blast, Moldenke saw klieg lights moving along the black hull of a freighter, the Pipistrelle. Passengers were boarding. He turned back toward Salmonella's nook. "Wake up, girl. We're almost there."

There were dozens of motors arriving at the same time, jockeying for places to be abandoned.

Salmonella hurriedly shucked her nightgown and got into traveling clothes.

Moldenke escaped having to do much jockeying when the motor ran out of heavy water and rolled to a stop in a cloud of steam.

"It looks like the end of the line," Moldenke said. "Goodbye Altobello."

Salmonella felt a small touch of sadness at leaving her birthplace.

With hundreds of returnees on the Pipistrelle, there was a shortage of cabin space. Most shivered the night away on deck in the open air. Moldenke and Salmonella considered themselves lucky to find a space to sit down against the foc'sle where they had something to lean back on. Moldenke had no sooner gotten himself comfortable, than his bowel began to anger. There were free people sleeping everywhere. Could he find a place to relieve himself without stepping on them, or worse, cutting loose inside his uniform on the way to the ship's rail. Given that choice, he elected to stay where he was and let go right there if it came to that. He thought back on what he had eaten that day. Very little, nothing since breakfast. His worries eased a bit. If he did have to go, it would be a small amount to dispose of.

"I'm having an attack," he told Salmonella. "That scrapple this morning. It was a mistake." There was no stopping it. He lifted a hip and emptied his bowels into his uniform pants.

In a moment the Captain, standing on the fo'c'sle deck, looked over the rail and said to a mate, "Lower a lantern. I want to see what's making that stink."

When the lantern was lowered, Moldenke could feel its heat on his head. "I'm sorry, sir. It's a condition. These attacks come at the worst times."

"You could have gone to the rail like everyone else."

"I didn't have time to get there."

Salmonella affected a whine. "He's my daddy and he's very sick. Please."

"All right then." He turned to the mate. "I'm going to my cabin and I'm closing the door." He waved to the crowd on the deck. "Good night all. We'll be in Bunkerville by morning."

Salmonella pinched her nostrils closed. "You can't sleep all night that way, or me either. Go over to the rail and dump it."

"All right."

Moldenke pulled his pants' leg tight to contain the relatively small mass until he could get to the rail, stepping over sleeping passengers all the way.

One of them spat at him. "Watch where you're stepping you stupid son of a bitch."

Once at the rail he extended his leg over the side and shook out most of the mass. There would be some streaks left behind in his unders and down the leg, but the better part of it was gone. Now he could sleep. He was tired enough that the slight odor that still clung to him wouldn't interfere. He hoped there were still some of his clothes in the closet on Esplanade. He had a disturbing image of going into the house and finding the jellyhead tradesmen wearing them.

Having made his way back to the spot under the fo'c'sle, he fell asleep beside Salmonella, who kissed him lightly on the cheek, then poked him to stop his snoring.

As dawn broke, passengers awakened to a cloudy, but welcome sunrise and Moldenke wasn't alone in anxious anticipation. As the Pipistrelle made her docking maneuvers at Bunkerville Harbor, rumors flew among the passengers as they queued for disembarkation.

"I hear the city is in chaos."

"No law, no money, no property, nothing. Just like Altobello. It's crazy."

"Did they close the hospitals and throw out the doctors? I'm feeling sick. I got radio poisoning."

"A lot of us do. Will they take care of us?"

"You think we'll get pass cards or money?"

Moldenke said, "If they make us wear uniforms, I hope they're nicer ones than these."

There were Muntians out in the streets, gathered into groups, gesturing and talking. Some looked around as if waiting for an indication of what was to come now that the City was liberated, as if waiting for a motor to come along with a flag, loud speakers, announcements and insignias. "Everyone be calm. The City is in good hands." But nothing came along. Had the liberation been no more than rumor?

Despite the anxiety and confusion on the streets, the Esplanade car was running on schedule and on time from Port Bunkerville to Bunkerville Park. Moldenke and Salmonella ran to catch it. Through the windows they could see that there were only two or three seats unoccupied.

The jellyhead driver turned the crank on his fare meter. "That's a half-mill for each."

Moldenke showed his Enfield Peters pass card. The driver cast a quick glance in Moldenke's direction, then wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "That's no good here, Peters, you idiot. We're still using money."

"I don't have any money," Moldenke said. "We've been in Altobello."

Salmonella said, "I don't have any either."

The driver shrugged and put the car in gear. "This could all change tomorrow, friend. But till they tell us different, we'll be taking cash. So pay or get off, the both of you."

The passengers began to yell. "Get off! We can't wait all day."

"All right."

Moldenke saw Salmonella reaching into her bag, probably for the gun. He stopped her by firmly grasping her wrist and pressing his thumb into it with as much pressure as he could manage.

"Ouch!"

"Stop. It may not be legal yet, the gun."

After walking a few blocks, Moldenke and Salmonella passed Bunkerville Charnel, where a jellyhead demonstration was in progress.

Forty to fifty of them, whose faces had been inked black, stood in front of the building beating on gongs and kettles with dunce caps on their heads. On their backs hung dirty brooms, boots and rags. Around their necks were pitchers full of stones. The eldest, most enfeebled among them, had a deep incision in his neck caused by the heavy weight. They all knelt down on crushed glass, lit candles, looked up at the night sky and repeated the phrase over and over: "Give us liberty or give us death…. Give us liberty or give us death."

The walk from Bunkerville Charnel to the house on Esplanade wasn't very far. "We'll be there in ten minutes," Moldenke told Salmonella.

"I'm hungry," she said. "Is there a Saposcat's?"

"In a block or two."

But when they got there, it was closed. A sign in the door said, "Moved to Altobello."

"Maybe there's something at the house," Moldenke said. "We're almost there."

"Jellyhead food? No. Is there a grocery?"

"There was a little market at the corner of Broad Street. It may be open. They might accept pass cards. It's hard to say."

The market was open, but in the process of closing. Moldenke and Salmonella were allowed in and told to hurry. "We're packing to go," the grocer said, "off to Altobello."

"Strange," Moldenke said, "we were just sent back…. Do you take pass cards?"

"Yeah, we'll take them. It doesn't matter. Money's worthless we just heard."

"Thanks."

Moldenke and Salmonella walked through aisles of mostly empty shelves looking for anything edible. There were a few tins of meat, some packets of dried sapsap, a bottle of green soda and a cake of kerd. They gathered all of it into Salmonella's shoulder bag and Moldenke's pockets.

"Thank you, sir. We really do appreciate it. The best of luck in Altobello."

"Where you going? You live around here? You look familiar."

"A few more blocks. Not far. It's a house my aunt left me. I heard there were some jellyheads living there. I'm a little concerned."

"Don't worry, bub. They used to shop in here. Those are good jellies, fine jellies. They've made that sorry old place into a showplace."

"My old friend Oswald was living there, too, but he was detonated."

"The hell he was. I just saw him yesterday."

"He was watching the house. He violated a law. They detonated him."

"You're out of touch my friend. Detonations stopped when we were liberated. They spared him. He had minutes to go."

It was not welcome news to Moldenke. Dealing with the jellyheads was one thing, Oswald another.

"All right, Salmonella," Moldenke said, "listen to me a minute. When we get there, let me handle the situation. Keep your gun in your bag."

"Stop worrying."

"All right."

They walked three blocks in the hot afternoon sun and were standing on the porch of Moldenke's house on Esplanade when Oswald came around the side with a dripping garden hose.

"Moldenke?"

"I'm back. This is my friend, Salmonella. She's freeborn."

"Hello, Oswald. I've heard about you."

Moldenke chuckled awkwardly. "The place looks grand. I'm surprised. Fresh paint, running water, no broken windows, all the brickwork tuck-pointed. I'm happy to see this."

Salmonella said, "We're hungry. We've got food. Can we go in?"

"Yes, but please be quiet. The jellies are napping. They work hard in the morning, they nap in the afternoon. I'll go in back and meet you in the kitchen."

Salmonella entered the foyer first and paused at the stairs leading to the second story bedrooms. Moldenke followed, past a tall clay pot holding four umbrellas, then a long low-boy that he recognized as his aunt's's, and the stairs leading to the second story bedrooms. On it was a copy of The Sublime and the Beautiful.

"What's that? Listen." She cupped her ear. "From up there?"

Moldenke listened closely. "It's the jellies snoring."

"What about us? Where do we sleep?"

"I don't know. We'll ask Oswald."

They went into the dining room. Moldenke recognized his aunt's round oak dining table set with four placemats and her silverware. On the wall were her spoon and matchbook collections.

Oswald took off his boots in the mud room and came through the back door. "Let's sit in the kitchen, you two. If you're hungry, one of the new jellies here is a cook and he made some very nice stew."

Moldenke saw it bubbling on the stove. "How many do we have here now, Oswald?"

"Jellies?"

"Yes, jellies."

"With the cook and the gardener, that's seven. They're two to a bed now."

"Oswald, this is my house. You were only watching over it. You were sleeping in an alleyway. I was desperate to find someone."

Salmonella said, "You should leave and take the jellies with you."

Moldenke raised his hand. "All right, Salmonella. Settle down."

Oswald was insulted, a little angry. "Look at this place. It's far better than when you left it. No rats, no rot, good roof, clean as a whistle. It wasn't me alone who did all that. It was the jellies. They like me. We get along. How about some stew? Want a glass of bitters?" He slid a pack of Juleps from his shirt pocket. "Smoke?"

"Yes. I haven't had one in weeks. Big shortage in Altobello."

Oswald poured two glasses of bitters and lit Moldenke's Julep. "Excellent bitters, made right here. The jellies and I fixed up a still in the back yard."

"I wouldn't mind some stew," Salmonella said. "What's in it?"

"Squirrel. The gardner gets them with a slingshot in the back yard. It has a nutty taste."

Moldenke inhaled the minty Julep smoke and spoke as he held it. "We were told Bunkerville was liberated."

"I don't know. People are leaving. There's a lot of confusion. Right now it's best to stay home and hope for the best. At least it saved me from detonation." He ladled two bowls of stew. "There, eat up. The little grocery is closing, you know. Can't say how long we'll be able to get certain things. This is the best we can offer right now."

Moldenke emptied his pockets, laying the items out on the table. "This is the last they have."

Salmonella asked, "You got any green soda?" She peeled the wrapper from the kerd cake, turned it sideways and took a bite.

Oswald popped open a soda from the cooler and gave it to her. "We got three left. The ice house closed, so this is the last of the cool ones. Enjoy it."

Salmonella tucked into the stew, guzzling the green soda between bites, grunting with pleasure.

Moldenke wondered aloud if pass cards would eventually be recognized, or would he need money to get by. He wondered, too, if Oswald thought they'd be wearing uniforms, and if so, where to get them.

"I don't know, Moldenke. I'm staying out of the fracas. I feel lucky to be alive right now. I don't want to show my face out there. Anyway, there are no more real workers to organize. No one works now except jellies."

Moldenke finished his bitters and Oswald poured a second round.

"Is there a radio? Do you have any news?"

"The station is off the air."

Salmonella wiped her lips with a linen napkin. "That was good. Now I'm tired. Where do we sleep?"

"It is my home, Oswald." Moldenke said. "We should have a place to sleep."

"I'll roust a few jellies and free up a couple of beds. They don't care. They'll sleep on the floor down here."

"We only need one bed," Salmonella said.

"Two," Moldenke said. "We'll need two."