BY ABRAHAM SHAMSHAD
“We can’t help you son, now get out of here!” The shopkeeper grew indignant with my persistence. He motioned to the door of the decaying grocery shop. I paused a moment, rethinking my tact as I took in the acrid odour that surrounded us. A thin film of dust rested undisturbed on all the products on the shelves. The fresh produce section was starkly empty, as were canned goods and toiletries. At this point all he seemed to be selling were birthday cards. Not that anyone had any use for them anymore.
Despite his command, I stood steadfast across from the counter, and insisted again. “They said you could help me. They said you’ve done it for others.” I made an especial effort to keep my tone calm and measured, and his exasperation seemed to subside for a moment.
He looked around the dilapidated remnants of the store and lowered his voice before responding. “Son, you can’t just waltz into random stores and demand we provide your escape. I could report you to them right now. Now get out of here before they make us disappear like those-”
The wind chime sounded, interrupting the shopkeeper, announcing the entrance of an elderly lady. As she shuffled into the store, he motioned to the door again. Frustrated by the hopelessness of the encounter, I complied and returned to the eerily quiet street. The only noises were the birdsong and the overtone of a gentle Autumn breeze. I meandered down the sidewalk, avoiding the knee-high weeds that were growing between the flags of concrete, until I reached my car. I climbed inside the weary machine and considered my next move.
I had been so giddy with hope when I had heard the myth of the mysterious shopkeeper that knew how to out manoeuvre the manoeuvrers, manipulate the manipulators, and infiltrate the infiltrators. But now, I realised the myth had been mostly constructed in my own mind out of desperation. The defeat of the situation started to overwhelm me.
Maybe there wasn’t an out. Maybe this is how it would end. Maybe my forlorn longing for the old days would ultimately be my undoing. Maybe I’d sat around with my fellow conquered thinkers and shared tales of the old world too often. Maybe there was no longer room for freedom or scholarship or advancement or civility.
I calmed my spiralling mind and turned the key in the ignition. The car coughed to life, the weakness of old age muzzling its once proud roar. It staggered over the uneven road as I navigated empty streets with empty sidewalks. I looked into the windows of the decrepit buildings I passed, and every now and then I saw the silhouette of a person, a grey phantom inside, too frightened to come out, but too curious to retreat from their window.
I retrieved my worn radio receiver from the glovebox, a memento of the old world, and tuned it just so. After a few moments of static a deep, raspy voice burst through the audio haze. Despite its harsh tone, the honestly of the voice was oddly soothing to my shot nerves and broken spirit.
“…we’ve just seen the collapse of what was one of the last relics of our sovereignty in the recent repurposing of Parliament House for the resource operations of The Foundation…”
The city around me was slowly decomposing into the ground, falling victim to years of disrepair. Erupting between buildings and from cracks in the tarmac was fresh greenery, the lush brightness exaggerated by the dreary back drop.
“…in the wake of all we’ve been through; the plague, the riots, the famines that followed, and the usurping of our democracy by those very people who claimed they would save us; these may be horrific developments to behold…”
My concentration was detached from the broadcast as I felt that all too familiar itch on my forearm resurface. I scratched in vain at the site where my Quantum Dot had been implanted. I often wondered if the persistent irritation it provided was purposeful, a constant reminder of the fact that they were stalking you, that they were controlling you, that they owned you.
“…Oddly enough, it seems that virus a decade ago was just the dawn of our problems. Believe me, I never thought I’d say that “back in my day, I lived through a pandemic, but it was but a drop of water in the tsunami of evil that would flood our planet”. But after all we’ve lost, it’s more important now to remain strong, maintain your faith, and fight them. You are not alone. And remember, during a trial so hard, against an enemy so treacherous, resistance is victory.”
The transmission ended with a crackle of static, prompting me to stow the radio receiver. I let the car roll to a stop at an intersection. The honking of horns and chatter of voices that used to fill this city centre lived on only in my head. I stepped out onto the road and continued the rest of the way on foot. A great stone colossus stood at the end of the road. It sprouted out of the ground; a grey behemoth of an heirloom left behind by the old word. The graffiti and deterioration that masked it did little to hide the pride with which it stood. I walked between the giant stone pillars into the massive foyer. Inset in the ground lay the cornerstone. Carved into it, these words appeared: “Greater Love Hath No Man.”
I heard the old man approach before I saw him. The scrapping of his cane on the ground as it found a new purchase always preceded him. He came to stand beside me and looked down at the stone. “You’re late,” his voice was hoarse and quiet. Almost a whisper.
“I got held up.” I kept my answers clipped and direct.
“Any luck?” he asked.
I shook my head with defeat. Without turning to him I asked a question back. “Did you hear the broadcast?” He nodded with a heavy sigh. “Why would they use Parliament House?”
There was a pause before he gave a deliberate and precise answer. “To dampen our morale.”
“They’re doing a good job,” I responded with a sad chuckle, “I never thought it would be quite this difficult.”
“It is not easy to find something that you do not know exists,” he said matter-of-factly as he turned, and started to shuffle away with the aid of his cane.
“So, what’s the point then?” I called after him, frustration raising my voice.
“To die hating them,” he responded over his shoulder, “that is freedom.” He moved onward, receding into the greyness of the day outside, leaving me there, with nothing but the foregone cornerstone for company.