Keys clicked as the interviewer typed on the computer console. A cursor flashed on the black screen. Steve sat slouched in the chair in front of the desk, jiggling his foot impatiently. A round clock ticked in the silence. The walls were bare except for a Battery City map, a dusty calendar, and a framed black-and-white picture of Dr. Miyamoto, smiling blandly into the camera.
“All right, let’s start with some basic information,” the interviewer said. “What's your name?”
“Steve Montano,” Steve said.
“Date of birth?”
He took a breath. “January 3rd, 1967.”
She typed some more, then peered at the screen. “Our records show that you were born in 1969,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s a typo,” he lied. “It’s been like that for years. My aunt called them a bunch of times, but they never got around to changing it.”
“All right,” she said. “I'll make a note of it.”
She scribbled on a note pad. Steve relaxed in his seat.
“Do you have any relatives in the city?” she said.
“Just my aunt,” Steve said. “She died last summer. Bone cancer.”
“What’s your housing situation?”
“I live in District Three,” Steve said. “Been working at the shoe factory the past couple of months.”
“Very good.” She typed on the keyboard. “Any illnesses or injuries in the past six months?”
“Nope. I’ve been healthy.”
“Any issues with your medication?”
“If you’re called out to duty, you might be put in a position where you won’t receive medication for days or even weeks,” she said. “Would you be able to handle that, or do you think that would be too stressful for you?”
“Nah, I’ll be fine,” Steve said. “I didn’t get medication for the first ten years of my life. Didn’t kill me.”
When the interview was over, he headed to the gymnasium. Lines of young men extended in front of each station. The nurses took Steve’s blood pressure, listened to his heartbeat, checked his hearing and vision, poked a thermometer under his tongue. He shivered in the cold air. When he stepped onto the scale, the nurse read “One hundred and thirty pounds.”
“Not bad, not bad,” said a scrawny teenage boy behind him. He stepped lightly on the scale. The nurse read “Ninety-eight pounds.”
Steve laughed and clapped him on the back. “Hey, keep trying,” he said. “Maybe you’ll hit one-ten by the end of the year.”
“I’ll be fitter than you,” the boy said jokingly as he pulled his shirt back on. “You can’t tell me all that weight is muscle.”
“More muscle than you!” he said. “You look like a goddamn string bean. The ruskies are gonna shoot you and floss their teeth with you.”
Steve stretched, kicked, walked in a circle, bent over so a nurse could check his spine. He gave urine and blood samples in a curtained-off area. When everyone had been tested, they were ushered to the library, where a woman passed out test booklets. Steve took a seat near the window. A thin layer of snow had built up on the window panes.
“You will have one hour to complete this exam,” the woman said in a rehearsed voice. “This exam will test your skills in math, reading, writing, and logic. Mark your answers clearly with a lead pencil…” As she read from the sheet, the men sighed, shifted in their seats, flipped through the booklets. Finally, she set a timer. “You may begin.”
For several minutes, the library was silent except for the sounds of turning pages, scratching pencils, and the occasional cough. Snow fell steadily outside the windows. Steve flipped back and forth through the test, filling in answers, occasionally checking the road outside. A layer of snow had built up on the highway, with tire tracks cutting through the ice. He sighed and drummed his pencil against the paper.
Suddenly the lights went out. The heater sputtered, then went dead. Several men yelped and jumped in their seats. The boy in front of Steve leaped out of his chair.
“Hey, hey, calm down,” Steve said. “It’s a government building. They’ll have it back on in ten minutes.”
“It better be,” said a young man across the room.
“You think this is bad, kiddo?” Steve said. “I haven’t had power at my apartment in two weeks. I’ve got blankets up over all the windows and it’s still like walking into a fucking freezer.”
“Language,” the woman said as several men groaned in sympathy. A man at the next table leaned over and patted him on the shoulder.
When the timer hit the half-hour mark, the lights finally flickered back on. The air seemed to sag with sighs of relief. After he returned from the break, Steve grabbed the test booklet and moved to a seat close to the heater. He worked as slowly as he could, the hot air warming his back. When he could put it off no longer, he stood up to leave. He grabbed his coat and scarf from the locker and bundled up, then stepped out into the freezing air.
The snow had stopped falling. A plow grinded across the street, spewing exhaust smoke. Snow had been shoveled off the sidewalks and piled in heaps on the street corners; it clung to the roofs of the muddy, greyish buildings. Steve darted to the grocery store across the street. He warmed his hands at the heater near the desk, then grabbed a basket. The shelves held only a few rows of canned food and a net of withered onions. He picked up a can of dried peas. Three more days, he thought.
If they didn’t investigate his date of birth too closely, in three days he’d be ordered to report to the training facility. He’d have a month of basic military training in a government building with lights, working heaters, hot showers, and three meals a day. When his training was over, if the war was still going on by then, he’d pick a fight or smoke a joint and get kicked out of the program. Then he would have to return to his old life—but at least he’d get a month’s vacation.
Steve carried his basket up to the counter. As the cashier started to ring up his purchases, he started to flip through a newspaper, then stopped. The cashier froze with her hand in the basket. Customers looked up. Shit, Steve thought, his chest tightening. Oh, shit.
A long, low wail cut through the air and started to rise in volume. As the siren rang out, people cried out and dropped their baskets. Steve jammed the newspaper in the rack and darted out the door. People burst out of buildings and dashed down the street like trickling streams joining together to form a river. Cold air ripped through his lungs as he ran down the sidewalk. When he reached the crowd around the shelter entrance, he pushed through the mob and lunged to the stairwell.
His footsteps rang out as he pounded down the rickety metal steps. Shouts and cries ripped through the air around him. He pushed through a knot of people and burst out onto the floor of the shelter. Several people were running around the floor, shouting for loved ones, while others were already huddled on the cots. Steve trudged past a woman yelling at a twelve-year-old boy, breathing hard, then collapsed onto one of the cots. His leg muscles ached from the running and stretching he’d performed earlier. His throat was raw from sucking in the cold air.
Steve sank back against the cot and tucked his hands behind his head. Greenish lights glowed dimly from the ceiling. A baby let out creaky, gasping cries. When the doors closed with a thud, Steve squeezed his eyes shut. Cries erupted from the crowd. People switched on flashlights, the beams cutting through the darkness. A thick silence encased the shelter, as if they were inside a cave. They were cut off from the outside world.
Steve glanced over at the twelve-year-old boy. He sat on the cot beside his mother, his expression unreadable. His mother didn’t look at him. Steve closed his eyes and turned away.
Three more days, he thought. If he managed to survive this one.
Anne Marie peered inside the fridge. She glanced back at her twelve-year-old son, who was doing his homework at the kitchen table, then bit her lip. A hunk of cabbage, a few onions, a single egg in its carton. She opened the cabinet next to the window. Three cans of dried beans. She bowed her head for a moment, then grabbed a pot from the cabinet under the sink.
“Tommy, are you done with your homework?” she said as she turned on the stove.
“Almost,” he said without looking up.
“Well, finish up and clear the table so we can have dinner.”
He peered at the fridge as she rustled around inside. When she took out the head of cabbage, he closed his eyes and sighed.
“Don’t sigh at me, young man,” Anne Marie said. “Go on. Clear the table.”
Tommy closed his schoolbook and gathered his papers, then headed off to his room. Anne Marie tried not to cringe as she peeled off globs of slimy, rotten cabbage and threw them in the trash. She started slicing the remaining cabbage into strips. Tommy suddenly appeared beside her.
“Mom,” he said. “There’s a line across the street.”
Anne Marie stopped slicing. “I know, Tommy,” she said without looking up.
“That means they’ve got fresh bread,” he said.
“I know,” she said again.
“Mom. Come on. We’ve gotta get over there before they sell out.”
“Tommy, I’m in the middle of fixing dinner,” she said.
“But it just started!” he said. “If we hurry, we can get some from the first batch.” When she didn’t answer, he said “Mom. Please.”
“For Christ’s sake, Thomas, how many times do I have to say no?” Anne Marie said. “Go. Sit down.”
Tommy stepped back, then sat timidly at the table. Anne Marie’s face burned with guilt. She blew out a breath and pushed the wispy strands of hair from her face. “I’m sorry, Tommy,” she said. “We’ll go tomorrow.”
“They won’t have any by tomorrow,” he said.
Anne Marie didn’t respond.
He sat quietly at the table while she mashed up the cabbage and cooked the beans on the stove. After Anne Marie said grace, they ate in silence for a while. Eventually, she said “Do you want to listen to the radio?”
“Can I?” Tommy said.
“Go on. Go get the radio.”
He grabbed the radio from the living room and turned it on. “—supplies were received at the base camp today,” the newscaster said. “Reports say that they’re expected to move forward in early June, but heavy snowfall has limited their mobility…”
As the woman delivered news about the war, Anne Marie gradually stopped eating. She slowly took a drink of water, her throat bobbing with every gulp. Her fork rattled as she set it beside her plate. The muscles in her face were taut with fear. Suddenly she reached over and switched it off.
“Mom!” Tommy said.
“That’s enough,” she said. “Finish eating. I’ll be back.”
She pushed her chair back and marched out of the kitchen. From the bedroom came the familiar sounds of pacing. Tommy waited for a few minutes, then quietly finished his dinner. Every scrape and clink of silverware rang out in the silence. After dropping his plate in the sink, he fetched his homework and sat down in the living room. But the words in the schoolbook seemed to blur together. In the bedroom, the pacing went on like a swinging pendulum.
He lowered his book and pushed back the curtains over the couch. A dozen people waited in line in front of the Williamsy across the street, bundled in scarves and coats. A layer of snow covered the sidewalk outside. Warm lights glowed through the Williamsy windows like hot coils through an oven door.
“Tom,” Anne Marie said behind him. He jumped and turned around. “What are you doing?”
“Mom,” he said. “We have to get in line. There’s a dozen people already, and they’ll be all sold out before—”
“No! Jesus Christ, Tom, how many times do I have to say it?”
“But we’ll be hungry! Mom! Please!”
“Tom, you bring this up with me one more time and I’ll smack you upside the head,” she said. “Sit down. Do your homework.”
She marched off to the bathroom, coughing. Tommy sat on the couch with his chin resting in his hands. The sauerkraut rested heavily in his stomach. When the bathroom door closed, he turned and peered out the window again. Then his eyes flickered over to the front door. The ration book lay on the kitchen counter. He summoned his courage, then eased himself off the couch and crept to the kitchen while his mother coughed behind the bathroom door.
A cold chill hit his face when he stepped into the stairwell. He clambered down the steps and burst out onto the sidewalk, the snow crunching under his boots. Several people looked up when he approached the bread line. A woman marched out of the Williamsy with her head bent and her face half-hidden in a scarf, a loaf of bread tucked under her arm. She looked at him almost pityingly as she passed. A feeling of dread washed over him. He knew what was coming.
Shouts and groans erupted from the crowd as soon as the Williams stepped out of the store. “I’m sorry!” he said. “We’re all out! If you’ve got coupons, come back tomorrow!”
“We don’t have ‘til tomorrow!” a woman shouted.
“Go to the grocer on Eighth Street! I heard they got canned food there!”
“I’ve been over there!” another woman said. “It’s all expired! The hell are you trying to do to us?”
The line dissolved into arguments until the Williams slammed and locked the door behind him. Two people at the front of the line tugged at the door handle while another pounded on the windows. The blinds snapped shut. People shouted and beat their fists against the walls. Tommy backed away like a frightened squirrel, then turned and darted across the road. He was about to run back to their apartment when he heard it—a long, low wail like a howl caught on the wind, first low against the ground, then rising in volume. Panic fluttered in his chest. The siren grew louder, and the crowd burst into screams.
Tommy tore down the street, his feet pounding against the pavement. Fear ripped through his body like an electric current. He followed the racing crowd to the shelter and tried to push through the mob, but someone grabbed the back of his coat and yanked him back. He yelped, the world spinning around him. “Hey!” someone shouted. “Let the kid go!” The hand released him. He bolted through the doors and down the stairwell, shouts whipping through the air around him. The metal stairs clanged under his feet.
When he hit the shelter floor, he darted around the aisles. “Mom?” he shouted. “Mom!” Indistinct faces whirled around him, shadowed in the greenish light. People ran past him, shouting, crying, demanding answers. His panting breaths fogged in the cold air. “Mom!” he cried. He looked around frantically, but the shelter was full of strangers. People stared at him from their cots with frightened eyes.
Suddenly a hand grabbed his arm and yanked him backward. He cried out and stumbled. Anne Marie grabbed him and spun him around. His relief was quickly replaced with fear when he saw the rage in her eyes.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she shouted. “I raised you better than this, didn’t I? I raised you better than to tear off across the road right before a fucking air raid! Oh, I should beat your ass, Tommy. That’s what my mother would have done. She would have whipped my ass if I tried anything like this…”
She dragged him over to one of the cots and ordered him to sit. She sat down on the cot beside him, her shoulders heaving with fury. Tommy sat stiffly beside her. He withdrew into himself, the protective guard of a child awaiting punishment. Around him, the crowd had started to settle down. People huddled on cots and bundled in blankets. Their breath was visible like cigarette smoke. A baby cried somewhere nearby.
When the doors slammed shut, he jumped as if he’d heard a gunshot. People cried and gasped. The baby wailed louder. He turned to his mother, but her breathing had become sharp and ragged. Her eyes were unfocused. “Mom,” he whispered. No answer. He turned away and wrapped his arms tightly around himself. A shiver rippled across his skin as if he’d been exposed to a blast of cold air from a freezer.
The siren outside abruptly cut out. The air was thick with the sound of a thousand gasping breaths. There was a hard, tense silence, as if time itself had been suspended. Then the hum of airplanes in the distance. As the engines grew louder, Tommy whispered to his mother again. She didn’t answer. He crawled underneath the cot, then closed his eyes and waited for the bombs to fall.