Jan 17 2013 6:00am
The view from the holding cell wasn’t as blurry as it had been in the cafeteria, and Holston spent his final day in the silo puzzling over this. Could it be that the camera on that side was shielded against the toxic wind? Did each cleaner, condemned to death, put more care in preserving the view they’d enjoyed on their last day? Or was the extra effort a gift to the next cleaner, who would spend their final day in that same cell?
Holston preferred this last explanation. It made him think longingly of his wife. It reminded him why he was there, on the wrong side of those bars, and willingly.
As his thoughts drifted to Allison, he sat and stared out at the dead world some ancient peoples had left behind. It wasn’t the best view of the landscape around their buried bunker, but it wasn’t the worst, either. In the distance, low rolling hills stood a pretty shade of brown, like coffee mash with just the right amount of pig’s milk in it. The sky above the hills was the same dull grey of his childhood and his father’s childhood and his grandfather’s childhood. The only moving feature on the landscape was the clouds. They hung full and dark over the hills. They roamed free like the herded beasts from the picture books.
The view of the dead world filled up the entire wall of his cell, just like all the walls on the silo’s upper level, each one full of a different slice of the blurry and ever-blurrier wasteland beyond. Holston’s little piece of that view reached from the corner by his cot, up to the ceiling, to the other wall, and down to the toilet. And despite the soft blur – like oil rubbed on a lens – it looked like a scene one could stroll out into, like a gaping and inviting hole oddly positioned across from forbidding prison bars.
The illusion, however, convinced only from a distance. Leaning closer, Holston could see a handful of dead pixels on the massive display. They stood stark white against all the brown and grey hues. Shining with ferocious intensity, each pixel (Allison had called them ‘stuck’ pixels) was like a square window to some brighter place, a hole the width of a human hair that seemed to beckon towards some better reality. There were dozens of them, now that he looked closer. Holston wondered if anyone in the silo knew how to fix them, or if they had the tools required for such a delicate job. Were they dead for ever, like Allison? Would all of the pixels be dead eventually? Holston imagined a day when half of the pixels were stark white, and then generations later when only a few grey and brown ones remained, then a mere dozen, the world having flipped to a new state, the people of the silo thinking the outside world was on fire, the only true pixels now mistaken for malfunctioning ones.
Or was that what Holston and his people were doing even now?
Someone cleared their throat behind him. Holston turned and saw Mayor Jahns standing on the other side of the bars, her hands resting in the belly of her overalls. She nodded gravely towards the cot.
‘When the cell’s empty, at night when you and Deputy Marnes are off duty, I sometimes sit right there and enjoy that very view.’
Holston turned back to survey the muddy, lifeless landscape. It only looked depressing compared to scenes from the children’s books – the only books to survive the uprising. Most people doubted those colours in the books, just as they doubted purple elephants and pink birds ever existed, but Holston felt that they were truer than the scene before him. He, like some others, felt something primal and deep when he looked at those worn pages splashed green and blue. Even so, when compared to the stifling silo, that muddy grey view outside looked like some kind of salvation, just the sort of open air men were born to breathe.
‘Always seems a little clearer in here,’ Jahns said. ‘The view, I mean.’
Holston remained silent. He watched a curling piece of cloud break off and move in a new direction, blacks and greys swirling together.
‘You get your pick for dinner,’ the mayor said. ‘It’s tradition—’
‘You don’t need to tell me how this works,’ Holston said, cutting Jahns off. ‘It’s only been three years since I served Allison her last meal right here.’ He reached to spin the copper ring on his finger out of habit, forgetting he had left it on his dresser hours ago.
‘Can’t believe it’s been that long,’ Jahns murmured to herself. Holston turned to see her squinting at the clouds displayed on the wall.
‘Do you miss her?’ Holston asked venomously. ‘Or do you just hate that the blur has had so much time to build?’
Jahns’s eyes flashed his way a moment, then dropped to the floor. ‘You know I don’t want this, not for any view. But rules are the rules—’
‘It’s not to be blamed,’ Holston said, trying to let the anger go. ‘I know the rules better than most.’ His hand moved, just a little, towards the missing badge, left behind like his ring. ‘Hell, I enforced those rules for most my life, even after I realised they were bullshit.’
Jahns cleared her throat. ‘Well, I won’t ask why you chose this. I’ll just assume it’s because you’d be unhappier here.’
Holston met her gaze, saw the film on her eyes before she was able to blink it away. Jahns looked thinner than usual, comical in her gaping overalls. The lines in her neck and radiating from her eyes were deeper than he remembered. Darker. And he thought the crack in her voice was genuine regret, not just age or her ration of tobacco.
Suddenly, Holston saw himself through Jahns’s eyes, a broken man sitting on a worn bench, his skin grey from the pale glow of the dead world beyond, and the sight made him dizzy. His head spun as it groped for something reasonable to latch on to, something that made sense. It seemed a dream, the predicament his life had become. None of the last three years seemed true. Nothing seemed true any more.
He turned back to the tan hills. In the corner of his eye, he thought he saw another pixel die, turning stark white. Another tiny window had opened, another clear view through an illusion he had grown to doubt.
Tomorrow will be my salvation, Holston thought savagely, even if I die out there.
‘I’ve been mayor too long,’ Jahns said.
Holston glanced back and saw that her wrinkled hands were wrapped around the cold steel bars.
‘Our records don’t go back to the beginning, you know. They don’t go back before the uprising a century and a half ago, but since then no mayor has sent more people to cleaning than I have.’
‘I’m sorry to burden you,’ Holston said dryly.
‘I take no pleasure in it. That’s all I’m saying. No pleasure at all.’
Holston swept his hand at the massive screen. ‘But you’ll be the first to watch a clear sunset tomorrow night, won’t you?’ He hated the way he sounded. Holston wasn’t angry for his death, or life, or whatever came after tomorrow, but resentment over Allison’s fate still lingered. He continued to see inevitable events from the past as avoidable, long after they’d taken their course. ‘You’ll all love the view tomorrow,’ he said, more to himself than the mayor.
‘That’s not fair at all,’ Jahns said. ‘The law is the law. You broke it. You knew you were breaking it.’
Holston looked at his feet. The two of them allowed a silence to form. Mayor Jahns was the one who eventually spoke.
‘You haven’t threatened yet to not go through with it. Some of the others are nervous that you might not do the cleaning because you aren’t saying you won’t.’
Holston laughed. ‘They’d feel better if I said I wouldn’t clean the sensors?’ He shook his head at the mad logic.
‘Everyone who sits there says they aren’t gonna do it,’ Jahns told him, ‘but then they do. It’s what we’ve all come to expect—’
‘Allison never threatened that she wouldn’t do it,’ Holston reminded her, but he knew what Jahns meant. He himself had been sure Allison wouldn’t wipe the lenses. And now he thought he understood what she’d been going through as she sat on that very bench. There were larger things to consider than the act of cleaning. Most who were sent outside were caught at something, were surprised to find themselves in that cell, their fate mere hours away. Revenge was on their mind when they said they wouldn’t do it. But Allison and now Holston had bigger worries. Whether or not they’d clean was inconsequential; they had arrived here because they wanted, on some insane level, to be here. All that remained was the curiosity of it all. The wonder of the outside world beyond the projected veil of the wall screens.
‘So, are you planning on going through with it or not?’ Jahns asked directly, her desperation evident.
‘You said it yourself.’ Holston shrugged. ‘Everyone does it. There must be some reason, right?’
He pretended not to care, to be disinterested in the why of the cleaning, but he had spent most of his life, the past three years especially, agonising over the why. The question drove him nuts. And if his refusing to answer Jahns caused pain to those who had murdered his wife, he wouldn’t be upset.
Jahns rubbed her hands up and down the bars, anxious. ‘Can I tell them you’ll do it?’ she asked.
‘Or tell them I won’t. I don’t care. It sounds like either answer will mean the same to them.’
Jahns didn’t reply. Holston looked up at her, and the mayor nodded.
‘If you change your mind about the meal, let Deputy Marnes know. He’ll be at the desk all night, as is tradition . . .’
She didn’t need to say. Tears came to Holston’s eyes as he remembered that part of his former duties. He had manned that desk twelve years ago when Donna Parkins was put to cleaning, eight years ago when it was Jack Brent’s time. And he had spent a night clinging to the bars, lying on the floor, a complete wreck, three years ago when it was his wife’s turn.
Mayor Jahns turned to go.
‘Sheriff,’ Holston muttered before she got out of earshot.
‘I’m sorry?’ Jahns lingered on the other side of the bars, her grey, bushy brows hanging over her eyes.
‘It’s Sheriff Marnes now,’ Holston reminded her. ‘Not Deputy.’
Jahns rapped a steel bar with her knuckles. ‘Eat something,’ she said. ‘And I won’t insult you by suggesting you get some sleep.’