Chapter I - I live in a world where there is no grass
I live in a world where there is no grass. No playgrounds, park or playing fields.
I sometimes see weeds growing through cracks on unkempt roads but I’ve only ever seen grass on screen. It looks really green, quite soft and short. I wonder if it would tickle my feet if I walked on it barefoot.
Hundreds of years ago population rates spiralled out of control. Villages turned into towns and towns turned into suburbs. These suburbs grew and merged with other suburbs until the entire country turned into one great bigass city. The prices of homes rocketed and many families were forced into homelessness. Slowly, the rich started to sell their fine jewellery and crime rates multiplied. The Government thought they still had control, but once the population hit 18 billion, a worldwide law of only two children per couple was put in place. Then when the population hit over 30 billion, the law was changed to only one child per couple.
My grandmother told me stories of families who used to have acres of spare land. The Government forced the families out and turned the land into apartment complexes. Imagine once living on an acre of garden! The museum in the 25th Sector has pictures of those houses. They looked extremely pretty. The museum also has pictures of schools with playgrounds. Schools don’t exist anymore either. They took up too much space and now everyone is home-schooled through e-learning.
State benefits were decreased then finally stopped because the Government couldn’t afford to provide financial assistance to the millions of families in poverty. Smothered in debt, the Government eventually closed. The Army took over to calm the riots. They’re strict. But strict enforces control and control keeps the earth safe.
Life is okay at the moment. If you’ve got food, water, clothes and somewhere to live you’re considered extremely fortunate. Luckily, my dad’s a senior engineer in the Army so we live a little better than everybody else. My mum volunteers for charities a lot and she likes to give away what we don’t need, and I mean really need. The other week she gave away my only spare pair of shoes because she saw a kid walking around barefoot.
Today was Sunday, and on Sundays, I volunteered at the local Families in Need shelter with my mum whilst my dad worked.
“Next!” I called out. The huge line that snaked down the street slowly shuffled forward and I sighed in dismay - today’s shift was awfully slow and long. I grabbed another paper cup and scooped up some soup from the large pot in front of me. The soup was instant chicken with vegetables. I learnt in history class we once, decades ago, used to grow vegetables from dirt, how gross is that? Artificial food is healthier since it’s made in sanitised factories. My friend Tommy had a real carrot once, stolen from his friend’s mother’s planter box, but he said it was awful.
I passed the cup of soup to a mother who looked incredibly thin and gaunt looking. She managed a small smile as she took the cup from me and passed it to her son. I quickly filled another cup and passed it to her.
“Thank you,” the mother said. She turned to her son, “what do you say Pat?” The boy looked up at me and smiled, a few of his front teeth were missing.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” I replied. I watched the mother and son walk over to the other side of the road and sit down. The mother watched the son greedily drink his soup and as soon as he was finished she passed him her portion too. That was common, parents starving themselves to keep their children alive.
“Tabitha, how are you going?” I turned around and saw my mother smiling at me. She looked tired, and some strands of her dark brown hair had fallen loose from her bun.
“Good,” I said to her. My mum smiled and reassuringly squeezed my shoulder. She must have seen me watching the mother and son. My mum was smart like that, she had these senses that could pick up anything. “The lunch shift is about to finish, why don’t you finish up now and go find Tommy and the boys?” All feelings of sadness disappeared.
“Are you sure?” I asked her. I hadn’t played with my friends in weeks. The annual e-learning exams had just finished the day before and I spent weeks beforehand studying for it. My dad was very strict when it came to school grades.
“Positive,” my mum smiled. “Don’t stay out too late though, remember dad’s annual work ball is tonight.”
“I know, I know,” I said. Mum and dad had been talking about the ball for months. Usually, only the senior officers could invite their families, but this year the Commander of the Army had extended the invitation to all employees’ families. Rumour had it they were going to announce something important.
I set down my ladle, took off my apron and chucked it into a box filled with the other dirty aprons. Immediately I felt freer than I had in weeks. I located my shoulder bag and hoisted it over my head and waved goodbye to my mum and the other volunteers as I stepped outside of the shelter.
Now, you may ask, what does an overpopulated city look like? First, I’ll describe the smell – rank. Pure minging ’cause no one considered upgrading the sewage networks when they built hundreds of apartment towers. I live in district 9th of Sector F18. There’s a joke that we have the nicest apartments with the foosiest streets. To be honest, the joke isn’t that funny ’cause it’s more of a fact than a joke. Each Sector is square shaped, with each square split into nine equal square zones, which we call districts. My friends Tommy, Simon and Jack live in district 6th of F18, so only one district north of mine.
Luckily the Families in Need shelter was only a ten-minute walk from the nearest tram line. As I made my way through the streets, I glanced up at the miserable grey sky. They say clouds didn’t always cover the Sectors – that years ago you used to be able to see a blue sky on a warm day. Pollution changed that. I squinted as I looked up at the skyscrapers and admired the architecture. It was rather beautiful yet terrifying at the same time. Glass upon concrete, upon steel – the structures were never-ending. I hope to be an architect one day. I reached the top tenth percentile for my CAD drawings last year.
Seeing a tram screech along the tramline up ahead, I ran forward and jumped onto the back of it. I went to swipe my Ingo against the reader but noticed an out of order sign.
“Bloody things never work these days,” grumbled an old man to my right. I sighed and gave him a small smile. Oh well. Free journeys for everyone then. Trams were vital for commuting anywhere throughout the districts. Each district was perhaps 5km by 5km so you’re never more than a half an hour walk to a tramline. Cars are banned, only the Army are allowed those. My dad has driven one a few times in the past. Bikes are banned too. The streets are so packed, bikes are impractical.
That morning on e-Chat, I saw the boys had made plans to hang around the markets of the district 6th of F18. Luckily that was only ten minutes away. As the tram slowly made its way through the streets I scrolled through the news on my Ingo. Riots, new strain of virus found, shortage of houses ... same old stuff.
“District 6th of F18,” spoke the calm female voice through the speakers. I jumped off the tram and made my way towards the markets. These were one of the largest markets in F18. There were stalls upon stalls crammed into an old pedestrian street. You could buy anything you wanted here: food, clothes, materials, homeware, furniture, gifts... Back in the old days there used to be supermarkets and malls, but they were demolished and made into residences. Now the only space left is in the streets.
I drifted over to the nearest stall that was selling jewellery and admired the goods. Stunning gold and silver jewellery pieces sat on old pieces of black velvet behind a glass screen. From the corner of my eye, I watched a group of ladies admire the jewellery. They all wore pretty skirts and their purses were made of a fancy material I didn’t know the name of. I shook my head in disbelief and backed away. It was dangerous to show wealth in the streets, the ladies were asking to be robbed in broad daylight. I made my way further into the market and rejoiced in the loud chaos of Sector F18.
“Fifty pieces for your vegetables right here! Best synthetic potatoes in the Sector.”
“Patch your clothes up! Holes fixed in five minutes!”
“Best furniture in the world!”
“Get all your proteins sachets here!”
I browsed a few stalls before I finally spotted the boys. They were gathered around a stall selling toy guns, slingshots and bow and arrows.
“Hey boys!” I called out and they all spun around and grinned.
“Tilly!′ they chanted together. My name was Tabitha, but only my mother calls me that.
There were four of us in our gang. Tommy, Simon, Jack and I. We were the best of friends. Tommy was the tallest with his lanky limbs and messy brown hair. He and I have been best friends since the first day of daycare. Initially, we didn’t like Simon who was the son of a family friend, but when he stopped being a big nerd we decided he could be our friend. Jack joined our gang when we were ten, Tommy and him got into a big fight over a chocolate waffle and the next day they were the best mates. I’m not too sure what happened during the fight, or what the importance was of the chocolate waffle, the story differentiates depending on who I ask. Boys are weird sometimes but they’re cooler than girls (and yes I know I am one).
“Check this out!” exclaimed Jack and he pointed at a black plastic bullet gun the stall owner was holding and showing the boys.
“Are you crazy?” I laughed. This is when I should probably add Jack is known for his somewhat, what’s the word? Unwise decisions. One time he tried to abseil a fifty story building in a category three cyclone. He ruffled his long brown hair in protest and stamped his foot.
“Come on! Tim in sector F17 has one!”
“Didn’t he get lifted by the Army last week?” asked Simon. Simon was the one who liked to play by the rules and was also weirdly interested in the latest gossip around our districts.
“Only because he accidentally shot a toff!” argued Jack. I laughed at that.
“Accidentally shot a toff? How can you accidentally shoot an army officer?” I asked. Jack shrugged and continued to stare at the gun with fascination.
“What do you think Tommy?” I asked. Tommy was the eldest amongst us, seventeen, and because of that we always turned to him for advice. He shook his head in disbelief and looked at me.
“He’s off his head with madness,” he replied. Simon and I burst into laughter.
“Come on! It’s beautiful,” insisted Jack. He turned to the stall owner, “how much?” he asked.
“Fifteen Telacoins,” the stall owner stated grinning from ear to ear. I almost choked on that. That was just under half of my dad’s weekly salary.
“How about eight Telacoins?” asked Jack.
“Are you mad?” demanded Simon.
But Jack continued to stare at the stall owner with silent determination. I hadn’t seen Jack this determined since eighth grade when he entered a backstreet race and chocolate was the prize.
The stall owner’s grin turned to a smirk.
“Twelve and no lower,” the stall owner said. Jack snorted.
“Funny,” said Jack, “I’m sure I saw this exact make and model a few stalls down for eleven Telacoins.” The stall owner was now scowling.
“Ten. Take it or leave it,” he spat. Jack grinned.
“Deal!” he said and swiped his Ingo across the reader. The green light flashed signalling the payment was successful.
“You’re bonkers!” I exclaimed.
“Mate, that has to be all your savings,” said Tommy. But Jack wasn’t listening, he carefully lifted the pistol out of its case and admired its beauty. I groaned. This was a bad mistake.
“Let’s test this bad boy out!” Jack declared.