Chapter 39: Barney
I should’ve washed this, I thought right as I stuck the newly-grown carrot into my mouth. The small garden I’d been planting for a month was finally starting to produce edible vegetables. I knew it was greedy of me to grow food and not share it with the rest of the city, but if word got out that I was getting more than everyone else, I could be in big trouble. They’d probably take me away and lock me up somewhere, or worse- lynching. Rumors of lynching had been floating around recently. With the only threats being starvation and disease, people had slowly begun to ease back into the habit of walking along the streets and chatting with others, just as they had before the Destruction. While taking a walk a few nights ago, I had overheard some young people describing what they’d thought they’d heard at the most recent rally- Perpetrators of Reyesen’t “unwritten” rules, as well as threatening mutants, would be punished severely, most likely by the hands of the people.
This last part didn’t seem probable, but there was no way for me to know for sure since I hadn’t attended the rally; and for good reason. I had guessed what the assembly was going to be about, and I had anticipated the mob that followed. My daughter, Mira, had recently discovered her own mutant powers, and I wanted no part of anything that would dare hurt her. “Hi daddy!” I jumped at the sound of her voice and looked up from where I was kneeling to see Mira exercising her powers by blending into the brick wall.
“Please, don’t do that,” I requested calmly as I stood up slowly, despite my protesting joints. Mira came out from the wall and her skin was fully restored to a natural rich brown.
“Sorry,” she apologized, dusting herself off, “It’s just so much fun!” Considering the most recent events, I couldn’t help but be thankful that her cursed power was camouflage.
“Keep your voice down,” I said quietly, hoping the few neighbors we had now hadn’t heard us. Mira nodded solemnly and I was glad I didn’t have to explain to her again why it was important that she stay hidden. It had come to my attention that the identity of the majority of the cities’ mutants wasn’t exactly secret anymore, and judging from what I saw, I didn’t want Mira to be exposed to all that ridicule. I was reaching for the back door when a loud knock emitted from the front of the apartment building. I froze and quickly ushered Mira into the back room. The knocking came again and I ran to answer the door, my heart beating loudly in my chest. What if members of the Council were behind that door? What if I was taken away? I’d be gone and Mira would be left for dead.
My heart dropped out of my chest when the open door revealed Roland and Natalia, both ready to knock again. “Barney Cull?” Roland asked, looking me straight in the eye.
“Yes,” I answered, my voice sounding stronger than I felt.
“You’re requested at City Hall,” Natalia said authoritatively, “Follow us, please.” I glanced back into the darkness of the apartment, hoping Mira would know to stay put. I shut the door behind me and followed the two officials into the car. Sweat began to trickle down my forehead and I gripped the edge of my seat. Justice is the head of the Council,I reminded myself, You and he have been friends for decades. You can’t possibly be in too much trouble. These thoughts did little to calm me down.
As we drove down the streets of Reyesent, I couldn’t help but notice the increasing number of papers tacked to still-standing telephone poles. It was hard to make out what any of them said at the speed we were going, but occasionally I could make out the slogan, “Destroy them before they destroy us!” which was sometimes followed by a crude drawing of an angry-looking stick figure holding a ball of fire in a circle with a slash through it. Not that these weren’t unsettling in themselves, but one of the posters read at the bottom, “Take a step closer to utopia and come to the city dump today at 9:00 AM.”
I looked back over at Roland and Natalia sitting in the front and dared break the silence, “Is there ever going to be a… a lynching?” I asked before I knew what I saying. I was relieved to see Natalia visibly shiver, implying that I had gotten to her.
“God, I hope not,” she replied, “Why do you ask?”
“The mutants have been getting it rough, lately,” I said, happily feeling the tension in the car ooze away. “I’m just hoping people don’t get too extreme.”
Natalia laughed a little, “I highly doubt Justice would allow something like that to happen.” She said.
“But what about the rally?” I asked, “That was the idea of the Justice’s Council. I’m sorry, but from what I know of him, it seems a little out of character for him to impose an idea like that.”
“It wasn’t his idea,” Roland said, his voice surprisingly warm and some-what casual compared to the formal way he had addressed me earlier, “It was Skip’s. Justice seemed a little preoccupied with something, so Skip jumped on the opportunity and drove the city wild. I’ll tell you, and I usually find it hard to say anything bad about anyone, but Skip Rogers seems to come off as a little shifty.” Natalia squirmed in her seat a little, but nodded.
“Is Justice okay?” I asked, suddenly worried that I was being called upon by Skip.
“He seems to be…” Natalia started to say, but was stopped by a stern look from Roland, “He’s fine. Just like Roland said, he’s got a lot on his mind lately,” she turned around to look at me, “Don’t worry, he is the one who’s requested your presence this morning. I think he just wants your opinion on a new idea for Reyesent’s welfare.” I didn’t want to let my guard down just in case, but I’d be lying if I said this new information didn’t slow my heart beat down. The only thing nagging at the back of my head was Mira’s isolation back at home. But no one knew she was a mutant, right? As long as no one knew, she was safe.
The rest of the drive wasn’t that long. We pulled up to City Hall and I got out of the car and followed Roland and Natalia into the building without question. The office I was told to enter was nicely furnished and I didn’t have to wait long before Justice opened the door and greeted me with a hug and a smile. “Barney, dear friend, it’s been too long!” he said as he sat down behind his desk.
“Indeed it has, Justice,” I replied with a laugh. This was the first time I had bothered to laugh or even smile since the Destruction. “What can I help you with?”
“Well,” Justice began, his face going from casual friendliness to formal business in the blink of an eye, “Sadly, Reyesent is developing. Why is this sad? It’s because it means that we’ve gotten so… quote-on-quote ‘used to’ this new life when I feel like we should be doing something find a way out, or at least change it.” I nodded, agreeing completely with what he was saying. It was a little disturbing to see these half-starved citizens beginning to live in this half-demolished city as if it was the most normal thing in the world, but I guess that was better than having chaos reign like it did in the beginning. “Hunger is under control,” No, it’s not, I thought, but I didn’t say anything, “Electricity and water is still under control, thanks to the power and water plants that have survived in this area. And there aren’t any known living threats. I’m thinking, in order to rebuild our society, we should create a currency.”
“Why don’t we just used money?” I asked.
“Because most of it’s gone,” Justice replied bluntly, “When the Destruction first occurred, all of the banks were either destroyed or instantly robbed. What money is left can’t be more than $3,000. If we’re really going to have a stable society we need a currency that is distrusted and controlled by the government.” I nodded, seeing the sense in his thinking. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“Suggestions?” I asked.
“On what to make the currency. How to make it.” Justice replied.
I thought for a moment and was about to reply when a sudden noise from outside made us both look up. “What was that?” I asked. Justice shook his head in reply and I glanced up at the clock on the wall: 9:02 AM. Oh no, I thought as I cold shiver of dread ran up my spine. “Justice, I’m sorry,” I said hurriedly as I got up from my chair, “But I’ve got to go. Do you have a car I could borrow?”
“Um, sure,” Justice replied, a little flustered, but still searching in his pockets for keys. He tossed a set to me and I flew out the door, “It’s the blue Chevy!” He called out to my back.
As soon as I was outside I saw what had been making the noise- it was a crowd, mostly made up of what older teenagers and young adults, talking loudly in the backs of pick-up trucks that were driving in the direction of the city dump. Something in my gut told me that whatever event was happening wasn’t good, especially considering Justice’s ignorance to it. I raced past the trucks in the borrowed car until I came to my block. I glanced down at the dashboard clock: 9:06. I jumped out of the car, the engine still running, and ran the last few feet to my old building. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that all was peaceful, no signs of a struggle anywhere. Just to be safe, I walked up to my door, opened it, and yelled out, “Mira?” No answer. I took a few steps in and called out again, “Mira? Sweetie are you here?” I ran through the halls, looking in each room, but saw nothing. “Mira, please come out.” Still, nothing. My heart began to race and I flew out the door.
“No, no, no,” I said to myself as I sped down the streets, flying to the dump. As soon as the giant trash heaps were in sight I saw what I’d been dreading- the trucks were entering the gate with about eight to ten people in the back of each one. I pulled up, parked the car, and leapt out. As soon as I rounded the corner of the metal fence’s entrance, the sight I witnessed was something I’d only seen on the news in 1992; a makeshift stage, surrounded by a hundred people or so, with a tall wooden beam set up in the middle. The beam had a short noose hanging from it, swaying in the wind ominously, with a red crate below it. Once everyone had gotten out of their trucks, a young man I didn’t recognize jumped up on stage to address the crowd.
“Ladies and gentleman!” He yelled, trying to get everyone’s attention. There was no microphone, so the guy had to shout, but he didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it seemed to be second nature to him. After a few moments of the crowd’s incessant chattering, he yelled, “Hey!” in a way that made me jump out of fear. That seemed to get people’s attention. Looking closely at him, I could see that I had never before encountered him before. Considering Reyesent’s relatively small population, plus the fact that I’d lived here for a good part of my life, I was surprised to come across someone I had never even seen. He didn’t seem like someone you would forget, either- he was tall, about 6 3”, with shaggy light brown hair that was covered mostly by a dark red beanie, and a tattoo that was half hidden by his shirt while the other half crept up the left side of his neck. “Welcome,” he said, a little more calmly, “To Reyesent’s first official lynching!”
The crowd erupted into cheers, some throwing crushed bear cans into the ear, others yelling obscenities in a somehow encouraging way. “In case you don’t know me,” he continued, “My name is James. James Melrose. Some of you know me, some of you don’t. Why am I telling you who I am? So you’ll know who to thank when this city’s been cured!” More cheers, some girls screaming excitedly. “Guys!” James shouted over his shoulder at a couple of people behind the stage I couldn’t see. A guy and a girl, both about his build, walked up on stage with a squirming figure in between them with a white bag tied over their head. One of them ripped the bag off of their victim’s head to reveal Mira, her face a little bloody and tear stained, one of her eyes badly bruised.
“Mira!” I cried as I pushed myself through the crowd. I ran up to the stage and jumped up with more agility than I’d expected from a 63 year old man. “What are you doing? She’s ten years old!”
“Relax, old man,” James said with a smirk, coming over to stand in front of me, “She’s a mutant. She’ll be a good example to the rest of them mutants out there who may or may not be watching. He walked back over to Mira, bent down, and rested his hand on her shoulder. “You’re daddy’s here to say goodbye to you. More like good riddance. You’re just takin’ up space. Sorry girlie.” She stared back at him with wide eyes, her breath coming in ragged gasps. “Go ahead,” he nodded at his assistants, whose grips instantly tightened on Mira’s arms.
“No! No, daddy, help me! No! No!” Mira screamed and cried, her pleas turning into sobs as she was hoisted onto the crate and had the noose looped around her throat.
“Mira! Stop!” I lunged toward her, trying to get her down, but James stepped in front of me at the last minute and punched me right in the jaw. My teeth snapped shut on my tongue and I felt the metallic taste of blood well up in my mouth. But that pain was nothing compared to when James kicked the crate away and Mira’s neck snapped, urging a loud cheer to erupt from the crowd below.