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Would you thrive in The Lost City of Desire?
(Chapter 3) Two siblings find Sarah stranded on top of a truck. Utopia follows dystopia. Written and illustrated by Stephen P. Williams
I finished writing this novel just before the pandemic began, and I illustrated it with the idea that dystopia can lead to utopias we have never imagined. I’m serializing it here as an experiment in 21st century publishing. Might there be a new model for reading novels? You can be part of figuring this out, by letting me know what you think of the book, and the platform, and by sharing it far and wide. A new chapter will appear every week.(Catch up on chapters you’ve missed here.)
Joe palmed a stone in case anyone tried to jump them — he’d heard plenty of stories about the city and didn’t want Carmen to get hurt. New Yorkers would as soon knife you as feed you, he figured. That’s why nobody ever came down from upstate. But he wasn’t too worried. He could handle it, for sure.
It’s not like everything was beautiful back home, anyway. It was ok. Yeah. But he and Carmen both had been psyched to leave, to have an adventure. They’d been to the city a few times, but their Dad hadn’t ever let them off the boat to wander. Well, Dad couldn’t do that anymore. Goodbye father. Hypothermic, fell off a cliff while bow hunting. The kids had found him, blue, sprawled in the wet snow, one arm twisted and his head bleeding. Before he passed he said to Joe, “Take care of your sister. Don’t count on your mom.”
“I’ll be the one taking care of you,” Carmen said to Joe as they carried their father’s body a few miles home. “‘I’m older.”
It had been a hungry spring without their father, and Joe worried about providing for Carmen and their mother. He felt too young. No one to help. Within two months of their father’s death their mother met another man. She said she needed someone to take care of her, and after that didn’t have much time for her kids -- this guy already had his own to feed. He said Joe and Carmen were old enough to fend for themselves.
“I have to do this, kids,” their mother said. “I have no choice.”
So Joe and Carmen loaded up the grain from the previous season, along with the spring harvest, just as their father would have done, and sailed down to the city, using the skills he’d taught them over the years. Today was the first time Joe had been off the boat in the city on his own.
He held the stone tightly. He would do anything to protect his sister. There’d been years when she was the only one he could talk to. There just weren’t that many other kids where they lived.
They decided they would have a look around the city, drumming up business before unloading their cargo, sacks of grain – wheat, dried corn, oats, barley – that they’d trade for goods the city people could still scavenge, like cigarettes, makeup, cans of food. Upstate, most of that stuff was gone. But in the city the high rises were endless larders full of stuff from the past, cans and bags and boxes of food. Joe loved the refried beans with the little cactus wearing a cowboy hat on the label. He would snag some of those.
It looked like there had been a flood recently, with a dark watermark running along the storefronts about three feet up. The tides down here at the mouth of the river were brutal, and with the flooding it was no wonder the city had emptied out. Still, everything looked shiny and glassy, unlike anything you’d see upstate, which was just forests and scrabbly little farms, nothing to look at, really. The city was something else, just seemed to go on forever. Joe thought he might get used to it.
They passed a row of old art galleries, glass fronts with nonsense paintings on the walls. As they walked, all they heard was the sound of their boots on the wooden walkways built over the water where the sidewalks used to be, and the quick flap of pigeon wings in and out of the buildings. The galleries were kind of cool, if weird. One had dusty photographs of high, snow-covered mountains with little fluorescent mountain climbers painted right on the photos. Another was a big empty room with a brightly painted statue of a guy wearing gold chains and a black cap, arms wrapped across his own chest.
They walked in and had a closer look. Red walls, gold floor, leaves that had blown in through an open window scattered here and there. A coffee cup rested on a desk in a little office next to a mound of raccoon pellets. On the wall behind was a huge painting of wild dogs.
“Can you imagine living here back then?” Carmen said wistfully. “The parties. The people all dressed up like in The Great Gatsby. Remember that book?”
“’So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” said Joe. “I’ll never forget the last line in that book.”
The boardwalk led up towards an abandoned mall, this giant thing of stairs. As they approached they heard something hard hit the boardwalk, and Joe jerked around to see what it was. A rock bounced into the water.
“Hey, you,” someone called to them.
“What the fu….?” Carmen said, looking up.
A pair of hands clutched the top edge of a panel truck, a face peeking over just enough to make out the forehead and nose. It was a girl and she looked scared, and possibly injured.
“Holy shit,” said Joe.
“I could use some help,” the girl called.
Joe looked at Carmen. Looked at the girl. Back at Carmen, who raised her eyebrows in a way that said, “Watch it.”
“What happened?” he called.
“I think I sprained my ankle. Maybe even broke it,” said the girl.
“On top of a truck?” he said.
“What were you doing up there?” said Carmen.
“I fell,” she said. “Last night, I think. I fell from up there on those ridiculous stairs”
Joe and Carmen gave each other a look like, WTF? and started figuring out how to get up there themselves, and then get her down.
On top of the truck, Sarah’s heart was pounding. She was nervous. She rarely saw strangers, let alone kids her age and definitely not this boy who was doing something to her insides. She had a crush. And she was in pain and stuck on the roof of a truck. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to act. The poof, poof, boom from her heart went off inside her head like private fireworks. The boy from the boat. He was older, taller. It was not an easy feeling.
Who was the girl?
Sarah scooted herself to the other side of the truck where there was a steel ladder to the ground. No way she could climb down by herself.
“Over on this side,” she called down to the two of them. “Do you think you could help me over here?”
The kids hurried over and began to climb.
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