New Edition Now Available!
The Recycling Center was a four-story, windowless concrete building that took up an entire city block. Etched in the side of the building was the universal recycling symbol of three bent arrows chasing each other in a Mobius loop. There was only one public entrance to the facility—a plain-looking, smoked-glass door bearing the hours of operation in inch-high gold-colored paint. Next to the door was a plaque the size of a dinner plate that read:
This building is made from 100% recycled material
New Earth initiative project #4562
Dedicated 2035 CE
Ransom entered the doors at fifteen past eight. Off to the right was a small public waiting room. Eight metal folding chairs lined the perimeter of the room, but they were unoccupied. Past the room was a small window where a red-headed receptionist was too busy looking at her fingernails to notice Ransom as he walked by. Beyond the receptionist was another door that was propped open. A bored-looking security guard sat on a chair next to the door with his arms folded across his chest.
Ransom flashed his work ID card at the man.
The guard didn’t even give it the customary glance but just smiled and nodded. “Power’s still out,” he said. “You want a candle?”
Ransom shook his head. “I’ll be fine.” He could get to the cargo bay even if the hallway was pitch-black. Straight back, then take the first right. The door was at the end of that hall. But it wouldn’t be dark—at least not during normal office hours. As he hurried down the hall, orange candlelight radiated from the open doors of offices on either side. The soft glow reminded Ransom of walking down an unlit road at twilight.
Ransom glanced in some of the office windows and open doors as he passed. Most people were bent over their desks, reading or filling out paperwork. A few had phones pressed to their ears. A middle-aged man with a large white candle on his desk and a pencil over his ear waved at Ransom when he walked by.
Ransom was in too much of a hurry to wave back.
He turned right and stopped at the door at the end of the hall. A bright white light emanated from the crack at the bottom. Ransom opened the door and stepped into a large cargo bay. Sunshine streamed through dozens of skylights in the ceiling. Five recycling trucks, painted forest green, were parked by the far wall. The trucks were twenty feet long and had a twelve-by-twenty-foot cargo hold on the back.
Two other trucks were backed up to a wall on the right. Their cargo holds were filled with wooden beams, chunks of concrete, and scrap metal. Next to the trucks stood half a dozen men. A few leaned against a large conveyor belt that took material from the trucks into the recycling machinery in the center of the building. With no power, there was no point in unloading the trucks.
Suddenly there was a click, followed by a humming sound. The reverberation of clanking machinery emanated from the heart of the building as the power came back on. Four of the men ran to either side of the conveyor belt as it rattled to life, and the other two jumped into the back of the trucks and started unloading the material.
Ransom headed to the row of gray lockers. He grabbed the work order taped to his door, read it, then shoved it in the front pocket of his jumpsuit. He pulled a small key from another pocket and opened the door, grabbing his canteen and tool box.
Standing at a large, stainless steel sink next to the lockers, Ransom let the cold water run through his fingers. This was the only sink Ransom knew of that didn’t have a water meter attached. The meters automatically shut off the water after five seconds and were mandatory for all homes, businesses, and government offices. No one knew exactly why this sink didn’t have one, but rumors circulated that the meter was packed away in a supervisor’s office or had been “accidentally” put on the conveyor belt and sent with a load of material to be recycled. Whatever the reason, Ransom wasn’t about to complain.
There was a rumbling sound as one of the cargo doors opened. In the mirror’s reflection, he saw the driver honk and wave. Ransom gave the driver, Dempsey, a half wave in return. He turned and looked at the clock over the door. Why was Dempsey driving the truck outside this early? He shook his head. He’d ask later.
As he looked in the mirror, he saw that his face was flushed from the quick walk in warm morning air; beads of sweat ran from his close-cropped hair past green eyes and down his cheek. Dried blood covered the corners of his mouth. He touched the spot and smarted where the sentinel’s fist had connected with his mouth.
Ransom stuck his head under the faucet, closing his eyes. The water washed the sweat from his face and reduced the throbbing in his jaw, but it did nothing to calm his fears.
After a minute, he pulled his head from the tap. Water rained from his brown hair to his face and splattered on the concrete floor. He looked around for something he could use to dry off. All he could see was a grubby, blue rag on a hook by the side of the sink. He used his sleeve instead.
“Hey, quit wasting water,” a voice hollered.
Ransom turned and saw a young man staring at him incredulously. What was his name? Jared? Joseph? Jesse? Jesse, that was it. He had been hired two weeks earlier and was assigned to one of the recycling crews that worked Green Zone 4. In that short period of time, Jesse had garnered a reputation as an over-excited know-it-all. Ransom was glad Jesse wasn’t part of his crew.
“There’s only so much water to go around.” Jesse stepped past Ransom and turned off the faucet. “I can’t believe they haven’t installed a water meter on this sink.”
Ransom took a hard look at the kid. He turned the tap back on and held his canteen under the water. In a few moments, water was overflowing from the top. Ransom kept the canteen under the tap, letting the water cascade down the sides.
Jesse angrily reached for the tap.
“Don’t do it,” Ransom said. “Not today. I’m not in the mood.”
Most days, Jesse’s attitude would have only inspired Ransom to harass the younger coworker. He might have poured his canteen onto the floor and joked about the lost life of a fish or something, just to get a reaction. But today was different. He was still uptight about the morning’s incident. Anger, fear, and adrenaline pumped through his body, needing an outlet.
Jesse paused, his eyes studying every inch of Ransom’s face. He moved to shut off the tap anyway.
Ransom dropped his canteen and grabbed Jesse’s right arm, twisted it behind his back, then squeezed the tendons between Jesse’s thumb and pointer finger as hard as he could.
Jesse’s back arched in pain. He tried to wriggle free from Ransom’s grasp. Ransom squeezed harder.
“You’re wasting water,” Jesse said through clenched teeth.
“And you’re wasting my time,” Ransom said. “Now get back to work and mind your own business, or I’ll keep this water running all day.”
He let go of Jesse and pushed him away. Jesse glared at Ransom, then headed for the closest green truck, rubbing his hand.
The men near the conveyor belt had stopped to watch the commotion.
“What are you looking at?” Ransom yelled.
The men shook their heads and muttered amongst themselves before returning to their back-breaking labor.
Ransom picked up his canteen from the floor and filled it again. He screwed on the lid and shut off the tap.
Dempsey was leaning against the front of their truck when Ransom put his tool box in the truck’s side panel. He had a half-smile on his wrinkled face that told Ransom he had seen the commotion near the sink. “Congratulations. You beat up the new guy. You want to tell me what that was about?”
Ransom ignored the question.
“Looks like you ran a marathon,” Dempsey noted.
“Tram lost power, so I had to walk in,’” Ransom said, looking in the side panel to make sure they had all their tools and equipment.
“Everything okay? You usually don’t snap like that.”
Without a word, Ransom climbed into the passenger side and slammed the door. He needed to calm down before he talked with anyone.
He heard Dempsey close the side panel of the truck before he climbed in the cab and got behind the wheel.
“Where we going today?”
Ransom pulled the work order from his pocket and handed it to Dempsey. As Dempsey read it, Ransom looked at him. Dempsey was finally aging. His burly build seemed slightly diminished, and the hair seemed more gray than black now, contrasting well with his chocolate-colored skin. He also had more heavy wrinkles under his brown eyes and across his forehead, which he blamed on the stress of being a father.
Dempsey handed the work order back to Ransom.
“A new assignment—a home to tear down. That will be a nice change from hauling trash.”
Dempsey pushed a button next to the steering wheel, and the dashboard lit up as the electric motor came to life. But then he tapped at the power dial under the glass, as though he thought the reading was wrong.
Ransom looked over at the dashboard. The orange power dial hovered just above the halfway mark.
“We’re only half full? How much driving did you do this morning?” Ransom asked.
“Not much,” Dempsey said. “I was just taking it for a test drive. Had to replace one of the batteries this morning. Wanted to make sure she was running good.”
“Must have been a long test drive.”
Dempsey just smiled. “Truck didn’t fully charge,” he guessed. “Probably had a power outage or something during the night.”
“Do we have enough to get us there and back?”
“Yeah, we should be fine. But if it doesn’t fully charge tonight, we might have a problem going anywhere tomorrow.”
Dempsey put the truck in drive and honked the horn so the others in the cargo bay would know they were in motion. The truck moved toward the large bay doors on the north wall. The two men by the doors stood and pulled the chain as the truck approached and the bay doors slowly opened.
Dempsey nodded to the men as he drove past. He guided the truck around the back of the building to the street. He then looked both ways before honking his horn and pulling the truck onto Edward Abbey Boulevard—or “the ’Vard,” as everyone called it.
Ransom looked at the work order. “Says here the owner died three days ago.”
“Think there’ll be anything left of it?”
“Only if they posted a guard.”
“A guard doesn’t mean anything. You know that.” Dempsey laughed. “They’re human too. Doesn’t take much for someone to look the other way—especially if he has mouths to feed at home.”
Ransom didn’t reply. He looked out at the city as they drove past. Dempsey was right. Odds were they’d show up to the house and find that anything of value had been stripped.
As they drove through the streets, Ransom finally felt the anger and tension slowly ebbing from his body. Suddenly Dempsey slammed on the breaks to avoid hitting a teenager who walked into the road. Ransom’s hands were braced to stop himself from hitting the dashboard, and Dempsey laid on the horn and cursed. The teen stood in the middle of the road and looked at the truck for a beat before walking to the other side.
“Stupid kids don’t know to look both ways when they cross the street anymore,” Dempsey groused.
“Considering almost no one drives anymore, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Not all of us are old enough to remember streets filled with cars.”
“Doesn’t help that you can’t hear these damn electric engines,” Dempsey went on. “That’s one thing I miss—the purr of a powerful motor. Who cares what they put in the air? You could hear a good one coming a mile away.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Ransom smiled.
Dempsey put his foot on the throttle and continued down the ’Vard, honking his horn more frequently.
“You aren’t that young, are you?” Dempsey asked as he took a left on 12th Street, heading west. “I thought you were old enough to remember when just about everyone owned a car.”
Dempsey honked the truck’s horn, and Ransom watched as a lady reading the news board jumped in the air. He could remember car-filled streets, but the memories were few and hazy. The clearest was of him sitting in the backseat of his family’s minivan, looking out the window as his mom pulled into a parking lot filled with cars. Perhaps he remembered it so well because the summer sun had reflected off their windshields and reminded him of a sky filled with stars.
“I was five, maybe six, when the carbon taxes went into effect,” Ransom said. “I remember my dad coming home from work and telling my mom that they couldn’t afford to drive anymore. Sometime after that, I think the car was sold or given to a recycling center.”
“You’re making me feel old,” Dempsey said. “Old, but useful. What are you going to do when people my age die? You won’t have anyone to drive you outside the town.”
“By the time you die, there won’t be any houses left in the Green Zone to recycle.”
“Yeah, right. There’s probably what, only two hundred or so homes left? In five to ten years, all their owners will be dead, and we’ll be out of a job.”
“I wouldn’t worry about not having a job. There’s always something that needs to be recycled. At the very least, there’s always trash that needs to be picked up.”
Dempsey laughed. “That would be ironic.”
“Turning us back into full-time garbage men,” Dempsey said. “That’s where I started, you know. Back when you were a kid, we were called garbage men. Good, steady job, but not the kind most people dreamed of having. Then they passed a bunch of green laws and started calling us recyclers. Change our title, and suddenly we have more respect in the community. Funny thing is, it doesn’t matter what you call us; in reality, we’re still a bunch of garbage men.”
Ransom raised his eyebrows.
“Think about it, Ransom. We simply take what other people don’t want and put it somewhere else. We just take all of it to a recycling center instead of putting it in a big hole in the ground.”
“There’s one difference. A lot of people want what’s left behind. That’s why most of the houses we visit are stripped.”
Dempsey’s eyes twinkled. “Yeah, but since there’s nothing of value once we get there, we’re basically picking up trash.”
Ransom let out a laugh, and out came the last of his anger and tension. He smiled the rest of the way to the security checkpoint.
* * *
There was one other recycling truck in line when they reached the security checkpoint. Dempsey put the truck in park and turned off the electric engine. They watched the two guards do a security sweep of the first truck.
The first guard walked around the truck with a mirror attached to a long pole to look under the bottom. The second guard waited while the back of the truck’s container opened on its hydraulic hinges. Once it was open, he looked into the back, then banged twice on the side. A moment later, the hydraulic hinges started to close.
When the two were satisfied, a third guard came out of the shack and approached the driver.
“Looks like we’re going to be here awhile,” Dempsey said.
Ransom looked up just as the driver handed the guard his paperwork. The guard was a short, pudgy-faced man with a goatee and close-cropped black hair and notorious for taking a long time to examine paperwork. He guard took the clipboard and licked his lips. It looked like he was examining every word with the thoroughness of a secondary school English teacher. All he was missing, Ransom thought, was a fat red pencil.
It was getting hot in the truck. Ransom opened his door and hopped out. “Looks like we’ve got at least a ten-minute wait,” he said. “I’m going to stretch my legs.”
He walked to the back of the truck on Dempsey’s side where there was some shade. He leaned against the truck, his eyes tracing the razor wire atop the fifteen-foot-high fence that encircled the city. He followed the wire until it reached a guard tower about a half mile away. Ransom could just make out a guard slowly pacing in the tower.
Ransom turned his attention to the line of twenty or so people waiting to leave the city. Based on the size of their backpacks, Ransom figured most of them were heading to the farming community of Cheney, a couple hours walk to the west. Two people near the front of the line, a man and a woman, carried large backpacks on their shoulders with sleeping bags attached to the top. Ransom wondered where their journey was taking them. Yakima, perhaps. Seattle. Maybe even Portland. Wherever they were going, they looked anxious to start. Ransom couldn’t blame them. It was getting hotter by the minute, and the longer they waited, the more time they’d have to spend walking in the heat of the day.
The braying of a donkey brought Ransom out of his thoughts. A guard lifted the stop pole and waved the man with the donkey cart through the checkpoint. The driver wore a wide-brimmed hat and a long-sleeve shirt. The back of the cart held burlap bags filled with ears of corn. Ransom felt his mouth water at the sight of the green husks sticking out the top of the bag. The driver gave the reins a shake, and the donkey picked up speed. Ransom made a mental note to stop by the store near his apartment on the way home. He might as well see if some of the corn had made its way to their shelves.
He thought about getting some food from his lunch pail when he realized he’d left it on the tram. Cursing under his breath for forgetting it, he knew there was no point stopping by the transportation department to see if anyone had turned it in. No doubt some enterprising person had already eaten the food and sold the bucket at the Station or planned on using it himself. Steel buckets like that were expensive to replace—if one could even find a replacement. He’d have to come up with another solution after he got home. He simply couldn’t carry an armful of food onto the tram every day. In the meantime, his carelessness meant he was going hungry for lunch. He leaned against the truck and closed his eyes. It was going to be a long day.
The truck lurched forward. Ransom looked up and saw the guard waving Dempsey to the checkpoint. The other recycling truck was already making its way down the road, leaving a trail of dust in its wake.
Ransom circled to the passenger side and climbed back into the cab. He handed the work order to Dempsey, who handed it to the guard. Then they sat in the cab for five hot minutes while the same short, pudgy guard examined it. Several times, Ransom was tempted to tell the guard to hurry, but he kept his mouth shut. Any comments simply meant the guard would take more time signing the paperwork. Ransom had waited in line for an hour once because the guard had overheard him make a snide remark to Dempsey about the delay.
“Open the back of your truck,” the guard ordered.
“Why? We’re empty,” Dempsey said.
“Just open it, sir,” the guard replied.
Dempsey pushed a button on the dashboard, and the whine of hydraulic hinges filled the air.
A few moments later, someone pounded on the side of the truck, and Dempsey pushed the button to close the doors.
The guard signed the paperwork and handed it to Dempsey.
“Sorry for the delay,” he said. “A family has gone missing. We believe they’re trying to illegally leave the city.”
He handed Dempsey a piece of paper from his clipboard. Dempsey glanced at it, then passed it to Ransom. It was a grainy copy of a photograph of a pretty woman with big eyes and dark hair.
“If you see this woman while you’re out in the Green Zone, let us know. Her name is Amber. She might be traveling with a man and three children.”
Dempsey nodded. “Will do.”
The guard waved them through the checkpoint. Dempsey drove down the dirt road at the truck’s top speed—thirty-five miles an hour.
Ten minutes later, Dempsey parked the truck on the brown, matted grass of a red brick bungalow. Ransom figured it had been built during the post-World War II housing boom that had filled up much of the land west of town. There was a detached garage on the rear of the property and a rusting swing set in the back yard.
“I don’t see glass in the windows,” Dempsey said as they got out of the truck. “I told you this place would be stripped.”
Ransom walked up to the house. There was a large, empty square where the front window had once been placed. He walked up the concrete stairs to the tiny porch. The front door had three small, rectangular windows that went down at an angle. The glass was missing and so was the doorknob. He pushed the door open, listened a moment, then headed inside. Dempsey followed close behind.
They stood in the middle of what had been a living room. The carpet had been torn up and removed. Small pieces of padding were still stuck to the floor. The outlets were ripped from the wall. There were holes in the walls where the wiring had been pulled out. One gash went all the way to the ceiling, where a light fixture had once hung.
Ransom headed down a short hall to the kitchen. As expected, the kitchen sink had been removed, along with all the piping, cabinets, and counter tops. The only thing that looked untouched was the linoleum-covered floor.
“We’ve got a bedroom and bathroom in similar shape,” Dempsey said, coming into the kitchen. “Double or nothing, the furnace and everything worth taking in the basement is gone too.”
They stood in silence for several moments. Then Ransom said, “Get the tools out of the truck. I’ll inspect the rest of the place.”
“Look on the bright side,” Dempsey said, smiling. “Whoever did this saved us a lot of work.”
The basement, it turned out, was just as bad. There were holes in the ceiling where the copper piping had been ripped out. In what had been a utility room, there were only dark squares where a washer and dryer had once stood. The salvageable remains were next to zero. If they were lucky, the wooden frame would be in good enough condition to be reused. But with the house being over a hundred years old, Ransom didn’t have high expectations.
He stopped in what had once been a bedroom. The walls were painted pink with big brown polka dots. The color combination was not to his liking. Still, he stood in the middle of the room and wondered who had lived in the house over the last hundred years. He wondered whether the home had seemed small and cramped or large and spacious to its occupants. He felt a twinge of jealously. This home was easily twice as large as his apartment. It probably boasted eighteen hundred square feet. Granted, he had recycled homes twice this size, but still, he’d love to be able to give his boys their own rooms and paint the walls their favorite colors.
Ransom headed up the stairs and out the back door to examine the rest of the property. His first stop was the detached garage. He opened two large, white, wooden doors and stepped inside. It was instantly twenty degrees hotter and smelled like dust. The garage was empty except for a pile of shriveled leaves and dust in one corner and faded oil stains on the cement. The drywall was still relatively intact, but it was yellowed from water stains in a few areas near the floor. To his surprise, there were power outlets on the far wall along two wooden shelves. Ransom found it odd that someone would take the effort to strip out the house but leave the garage untouched. True, there wasn’t much to take, but the few power outlets and wiring in the walls held some value.
He headed to the back yard. Next to the swing set was a large cherry tree. The green leaves were wilting. Despite its large size, Ransom figured it wasn’t going to last long—at least not without regular care. Not that it mattered anyway—once the house was gone, someone would come and take the tree down too. Cherry trees weren’t native to this part of the Green Zone, so it would have to go.
Ransom kicked at some dried cherry pits on the dead grass, then moved to the swing set. The metal frame was pockmarked with rust. The swing seats were cracked and bleached white from years of exposure to the sun. Ransom wondered why no one had bothered to remove the frame. It was heavy, and the metal alone would easily bring a month’s worth of wages if one could find the right buyer. He got down on his knees and pulled back the brown, foot-high grass that surrounded the base of the poles. The swing set was anchored in cement. It appeared that someone had tried to chisel it away but had given up.
Ransom stood up and looked around the yard. It was about a quarter acre in size. He found his mind drifting back to his two boys and wondered how they’d enjoy having this much space to run around. The play area next to their apartment building was crowded with kids, and there was always a fight for the swings or other playground equipment. But if they lived in this house, his two boys would have their own place to play. He stood for a minute and imagined them running around the yard, chasing each other and playing on the swings. The thought of his boys made him smile.
“Hey, where do you want to start?”
Dempsey’s voice brought Ransom out of his reverie. He turned and saw Dempsey standing at the back door with his tool box in his hand.
“The garage,” Ransom said. “For some reason, they didn’t touch it. We should get everything out of there now. They’ll come back and take it tonight if we don’t.”
Ransom watched Dempsey head into the garage. A moment later, he could hear the sounds of the drywall being pried back from the walls. He was glad they had found something of value. His family needed the extra income that the outlets and wiring would bring.
New Edition Now Available!