"You always seemed so sure
that one day we'd be fighting
in a suburban war . . ."
The half-light of five AM fell on my back and the houses of the Sprawl behind me. The eastern sky, tinged with a dim yellow, signaled the familiar approaching dawn. But in the suburbs, dawn was a great little thing that hardly anyone noticed.
It took just thirty minutes to reach the edge of the neighborhood. I walked inside the shadows of the not-yet morning, along gravel streets and between slumbering homes. I worried that they'd see me, but, back then, I worried too much. There was little chance I'd be discovered. This was the time when the Moderns slept—this thirteenth hour, this freedom age.
My bare feet stepped from asphalt onto grass. Between my toes sprouted blades of green, like hair. I walked among the dead. And then I stopped. I couldn't go any farther. No one ever did, anymore.
The wire fence before me, my barbed and cold friend, encompassed the Sprawl completely—the cage for the labyrinth. Within the suburbs, grass grew slave to stone and sidewalk, but out there it stretched over the horizon, the people bathed in lakes and streams, and showered under the rain, if it rained at all.
I slid my fingers through the diamond-holes of the fence, and was free.
The gears of Peter's bike groaned as we surged down the road, earning us a cry of disapproval from Mrs. Gable across the street.
I shouted against the wind. "We should slow a drop, yeah?"
Peter, his long blond hair whizzing behind his head, turned and cried, "Yep!" before he bent in his seat, crouched, and began to speed up, pedaling all the faster.
Smiling, I shouted an apology to Mrs. Gable before accelerating in his wake.
No street ever began or ended in the Sprawl. They were all connected, whether by cul-de-sac or sidewalk. No street ever ended, but sometimes they stopped. Today, the Modern Men stood in the middle of the road like marble sentinels, with gray rifles held rigidly across their chests. Their full body armor looked like rubber under the summer sun, but their helmets, glassy and black as a void, seemed somehow to absorb the daylight.
"This area is restricted," the nearest Modern said in a robotic voice.
Behind him, a house—which looked like any other house in the Sprawl—crumbled under the force of a colossal metal crane.
"Yeah, fair," Peter said, as he edged closer forward. He swatted his hair from his eyes to better witness the iron titan bludgeon the shambling house.
"This area is restricted," the Modern repeated, turning toward Peter.
"Yes, modem, I heard you."
The Modern raised his weapon, but Peter didn't flinch. I saw his face reflected in the black glass of the Modern's helmet: he wasn't afraid, just annoyed.
"Feelin' green, modem?" Peter sneered. "I ain't causing any harm. Besides," Peter gestured toward the falling house, "What's a spectacle for, but for spectating?"
I rolled my bike a little closer. "Pete, let's—"
"This area is restricted," the Modern said again, as if the phrase was a recording. "Please leave the premises."
"Leave? Not a place to go," Peter replied casually, though I noticed him slowly retreating, "Sprawl's crowded these days."
The base of the rifle made contact with Peter's face before he or I could react. A stream of blood blossomed from his nose and he fell to the pavement. We had caught the attention of other Moderns, though they remained a distance away.
Peter muttered expletives as I hauled him to his feet and onto his bike. The profanity continued until we were well clear of the Modern Men. After that, as we pedaled past identical homes, silence reigned, save for the soft chirp of faraway sprinklers.
The day the world ended Peter and I were standing on the lawn outside his house, caked in mud. The rain of the day before had transformed the hills into slides, and invigorated the white and yellow daisies that lined the sidewalks.
The tanks, as they were paraded between the houses, flattened the flower beds under twenty tons of machinery and ostentation. I heard the flowers scream before they died, before the life that rain gave them was snuffed out entirely. I never saw a daisy grow inside the Sprawl again.
Behind the steel giants, a regiment of Modern Men followed in perfect formation. They marched to the din of a soundless drum, but I heard it—breathed it—within my own lungs.
Among the Modern Men strode one with a white stripe down his black uniform. In his hands he held a pistol-like contraption which amplified his voice, causing it to resonate throughout the suburbs. He told us the war was won, but that for our own safety, we were to stay in our homes.
And then the fence went up.
They locked us inside the Sprawl after the first bombs fell, and when the second barrage came, we were already bored.
Dinner sat between the three of us, warm, but only half-eaten. The fireplace crackled softly. Peter's father had asked him a question.
"Nothing, really," Peter answered, staring at his plate. "Me and Deck—"
"Hey," his father interrupted, "Eyes up."
Peter immediately obeyed, locking gazes with his father. "Me and Deck," he repeated, as his father shot me an unfriendly look before returning to his food, "biked the Sprawl. Nothin' singular."
I recognized the lie; the dog tag around my neck grew somehow hot.
Peter's father grunted. I watched him stare at the fire. After a moment, he looked at his son and said, "Peter, I'm worried about you."
"Well, I am."
"I'm green," Peter said, "naught to fuss."
"It's time to grow up, kid."
"Jesus, how long do you think it's been dead?"
"The helmet's dusted," Peter said in reply. "You ever glimpse one of their helmets dusty?"
"Reckon not," I mumbled. "So, long?"
"Long enough, but that's a hunch."
We were crouched over the lifeless, uniformed body of a Modern Man. It was lying under the bridge at the west end of the Sprawl when Peter's bike rolled over it and he flew head-first into the concrete.
Under the shadow of the bridge, I felt strangely like a criminal. "Let's quit, Pete, before other modems show."
"That's fair, Deck," Peter answered, halfheartedly, "But stick a bit, will you? I want to see what's inside."
When Peter lifted the helmet, I turned away instantly. A pulp of white flesh was all I cared to see before mounting my bike and pedaling out from under the bridge. I stopped with the front of my bike halfway under the sun, the other half in shadow. Despite the distance, the nauseating smell meandered across the way, and flooded my nostrils like a cigarette.
"Pete!" I shouted, "Come away, would you?"
Peter appeared next to me, on foot. "Sorry, Deck," he said, with a sincerity that was rare for him, "I guess they're made of bones, after all."
"Get your bike and let's quit already."
Peter grinned. He held up what looked like a pair of dog tags. "ID tags," he said. "Guy's name is—"
"Was," I offered.
"—Was Joseph North."
"That's green," I said hurriedly. "Can we go?"
Peter took the tags in both hands and pulled. The tags separated, and he handed one to me. I took it, if only to hurry him along.
Our bikes carried us across the lawn, which, in the dark, seemed infinitely vast. Behind us, sirens blared in tune with a light show of red and blue. The lights illuminated the ground a short distance ahead.
Peter was just behind me; I could hear the trademark groan of his bike despite the discord of the sirens' howl.
I looked over my shoulder and caught his eye. Smirking, I yelled, "You okay there, 'early bird'?"
He shouted in reply, "Shut up and pedal!"
When I turned again, the fence was there, and I crashed into it before I could scream, let alone warn Peter. In a moment the world was upside down and in the next, the Moderns had us shoved against the briar of the fence.
A robotic voice: Search them.
Cold hands groped us from neck to toe. In the corner of my eye I saw Peter spit on the helmet of one of the Moderns.
A robotic voice: Strip him.
I shut my eyes then, but that didn't keep me from seeing. Peter, his nakedness kindled in violet light, shrunk under the hurricane of batons and rifle butts. Each hit echoed through the night, louder than any bomb ever could.
Whenever the sirens came on it meant that everyone within the Sprawl was supposed to go home and stay there. Peter and I usually did the opposite. We'd slipped outside to see firsthand whatever was going on, but the Moderns kept a watchful eye, which made it difficult.
Sneaking around became easier after we met Joseph North. The shadows under the bridge were a perfect hiding place, and if a dead body could go undetected there for days, we figured a couple of kids could too.
One evening, sirens wailing, I arrived under the bridge, but Peter wasn't there. The corpse of Joseph North lay where it always had, unmoved and unnoticed. A glance in its direction caused me to shiver, despite the heat.
I greeted the dead Modern Man and he replied with a courteous salute.
"How did you die?" I asked him, but North didn't answer. Instead, he turned his grotesque head one way and then the other. I figured he was looking for his gun.
"It's not here," I told him, and then wondered how many people he had killed with it. "How did you die?" I asked him again.
"Heart failure," he said in a throaty voice—a real voice—not a machine's.
"Then how did your face get . . ." I paused, searching for the right word, "like that?"
North's remaining eye blinked in surprise. "Like what?"
"It's . . ." I hesitated. "Well, it isn't green."
"No?" His wreck of a face contorted downwards, as if searching for something. "Where are my legs?"
I gave him a shrug. "You didn't have them when I met you."
North nodded his head, as if satisfied with my answer. "Must've been dogs, then."
I shook my head. "No dogs here."
"No dogs?" his lone eye spun toward me, appraised me.
I offered him a smile, but he didn't smile back. Not that he could.
After a while, North said, "You look bored."
"I'm waiting on a friend."
"I guess I'm waiting, too."
I thought to ask him what he was waiting for, but decided it didn't matter.
"Your friend, does he live here?" North asked me.
I told him yes, he does.
"And you? Where do you live?"
I told him, I live in the suburbs, and then I told him, I don't know.
But none of that happened, not really, and before long, the day was dark and I figured it was time to go home. Peter never showed, but I like to think that the hours I spent under the bridge with Joseph North weren't wasted. I even summoned the courage to look him in the face after an hour or so, and I didn't vomit until after I got home.
I rang the doorbell, but no one answered. I called Peter's name, but he didn't answer. The door swung open at the force of my knock. Unlocked. I stepped inside. For some reason the mangled, puréed face of Joseph North flashed in my mind as I made my way down the hall.
A flickering orange glow bathed the dining room as I entered. Peter and his father only ever lit it during dinner, but the table sat there bare, like a fallen monolith.
I turned around to see Peter but not Peter, and for a moment I didn't know to say. Eventually, "You . . . cut your hair."
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Haven't seen you in days." I stared at the buzz-cut blond hair that used to fall down to his neck. "You green? You never met me under the bridge. Did you hear the doorbell?"
"Deck, my dad doesn't want you around."
"Fair; tell me something I don't know."
Peter bit his lip. "You need to grow up."
I tried smiling. "What do you mean?"
"I mean obey the rules. Listen to the sirens." He seemed suddenly angry. "I mean no more biking after curfew, no more chasing Moderns. And no more Joseph-fucking-North."
I grew defiant. "You're the one that—"
He punched me.
My vision blurred as I collapsed backwards onto the side of a chair. The side of my head throbbed, I tried to speak, and that's when Peter hit me again. He was crying now, but I don't think he noticed, because he hit me again, a third time.
He crossed the dining room and threw something small, something metal into the fireplace.
I never saw Peter again.
That morning clocked in at 75 and sunny with a gentle breeze. The cloudless sky spilled through my window as soon as Peter pried it open from the outside.
"Shine and rise, Deckard!"
"That's backwards," I muttered groggily.
"Aw, don't be sore, Deck," he said, half his body already through my window. "I've always been the earlier bird."
"That isn't fair," I said, as I pulled the covers over my head. "Your bike is faster."
"All's fair in the suburban green," he said happily.
I told him five more minutes.
"Come on, Deck," he said. "I venture if there ain't any sirens today, we could bike down to your house. Watch it fall to pieces."
"This is my house," I said into my pillow.
Peter scoffed. "Yeah, yours and ten other orphans.'"
I groaned. "Mrs. Gable's going to yell at us again."
Peter flashed me a grin. "Ain't that part of the fun?
The half-light of five AM cradled me as I placed my face against the cage. Its thorny, wired surface bore into the soft skin of my cheeks, but I didn't feel it, nor care to feel it. My fingers, swollen and pink with the burns of that fireplace chase, were free.
Around my fingers hung the dog tags. I let one of them go.
It landed on a lone daisy—a great little thing that I hadn't noticed—and as I returned home to my house in the suburbs, it screamed in my ear.