Forty-Five to Midnight

Terington Province, Northwest, Global

Smoke and Fire

Wednesday, March 1, 2045

March arrived without fuss or fanfare. A welcome change after the incessant winds of February. The people of 10th Park trailed out to watch the sunrise, their boots still holding up after years of wear. As they trudged past the remnants of a world gone mad, the new curtain of snow promised them a second chance.

But the people of 10th Park were tired of promises. Turning a dim eye to the snow, they gathered round the nearest drum to warm their hands and spirit. Another day of waiting. Another day of inescapable hope.

Two miles west across the river, Aster Noles awoke with the sun like every morning since childhood. And just as she had done then, Aster watched the steady smoke push upward, defying the odds for one more day – plus tomorrow, she added under her breath. She had long since learned the value of time. And with spring just around the corner, the snow would soon be an unfortunate memory.

For the lucky few, spring was a time of renewal. But for Aster, the encroaching season renewed her worse fear. If she was right, the first floor would be destroyed. Aster closed her eyes against the thought. She couldn’t afford to test fate again. She had already poured her dreams into 913 Merable Street.

The hall light blinked in rapid succession. Less intrusive than their prototype, the light paused for five seconds before resuming its command. Aster ran to type in her password. The lock clicked open with eight minutes to spare. Despite six years of practice, the light still made her heart do a triple backflip. Wide awake now, she watered the flowers and jumped into the shower.

***

Her shift at Twisted Beans over, Aster worked on the first section while a few of the other tenants watched from a safe distance. She knew how strange it must look to them. She also knew it was impossible to reach them. They lived in separate worlds blithely stacked on top of each other. And for all its many achievements, technology had yet to close the distance.

At last, she managed to loosen the first bits of paint from the wall. Evolution had not favoured the first-floor tenants. But maybe – just maybe, they would survive. In any case, she owed it to herself, the first-floor tenants and those waiting to at least try, no matter how implausible her success. Or how impossible it was for them to understand. Hell, even she didn’t understand it – not entirely.

After the last floods, their super argued the damage was due to the neglect of first-floor tenants. If found guilty, it would’ve meant an unforgivable breach of their contracts. Fortunately, the landlord saw the break during a walk with his girlfriend, ordered a contractor and some paint, then let them off with a warning about accusing the super of neglect.

Some first-floor tenants speculated the landlord had only wanted to impress his girlfriend. No one knew for certain and no one cared. Mr. Dippins was known to be a ladies’ man. It was an accepted cliché among the first-floor tenants. Was he a man of reason too? She might’ve come from 10th Park, but that didn’t mean she was simple, contrary to popular belief. Aster waved to Mr. Silies in a gesture of goodwill.

“What do you suppose she’s doing?” Mr. Silies asked from his podium.

Mr. Harald puffed his chest. “I only pay heed to the turkey on my plate.”

“Do you think we should notify the super?” Mrs. Preening eyed the woman in alarm.

“She’ll tire before long,” Mr. Grimly said. “No one breaks their contract.”

Saturday, March 4

Upper-floor tenants held onto their thoughts while a crowd of onlookers huddled for warmth. The crowd appeared harmless enough: a series of men and women stopping to inquire about the woman scraping a wall in the cold and snow. Satisfied with the answer, most nodded and went about their lives.

Though many stayed for further deliberation, and more notably, to articulate their learned opinion. Thanks to its ongoing expansion, the building had tripled in length and gained two new floors. But the young woman was hard to ignore with her scraper, coat that had seen better years, and sugary bubblegum hair. The crowd swapped noble theories about mental illness, poverty and the growing number of parks.

Seemingly deaf to the ruckus, Aster pushed westward. Theories were of no value from where she stood.

Unable to ignore his mounting concern, John approached the wall with scraper in hand. He wanted to know why Aster thought it necessary to strip away perfectly good paint. Like all things it seemed these days, the paint would not have been cheap.

And he knew Aster since before her parents moved. Frugal to a fault, some might say. He had never known her to throw anything away, not even the scraps of material inside her junk drawer, filled with countless artifacts waiting to be recycled. John peeked at the upper-floor tenants. They looked uninterested in the scene before them. He didn’t buy it.

Next, he studied his friend and neighbour from apartment 134. At twenty-six, she already possessed more courage than he ever would. She wasn’t a woman to be dismissed, by him or anyone else. “Why are you wasting your time on this, Aster?” he asked quietly. “It’s freezing out.”

Aster paused to look at John. “You’ll think I threw my marbles out with last week’s garbage. Maybe I did. But I see no other way.”

“Try me for size.”

“Remember the crack on the side of the building?”

“How can I forget? I dreaded spring for the two years it took Mr. Dippins to fix it. Remember that second year? I had to camp out on your couch for three days while they fixed the damage.”

Aster’s scraper faltered for a second. She glanced toward the smoke. Its ever-changing form steadied her resolve. “I noticed the weeds taking over the foundation last summer. And now lately, I’ve been noticing a stench in my bathroom.”

John recalled the mildew in his own bathroom. He let it slide until the tub started draining twice as slow and the toilet needed two flushes instead of one. The super promised he’d take a look. But as usual, their super was too busy with other maintenance.

“Did you mention it to Busy?” John ripped off a piece of red paint and threw it on last night’s snow. To his overactive imagination, the discarded paint looked like fresh blood.

“He said it was at the top of his list and asked what scraping paint had to with it. I told him it’s everyone’s job to keep our building safe and in good repair for all of us. So if there’s a problem, it needs to be fixed. And with spring on the way, I’m afraid the first floor will be ruined beyond repair this time. He then told me to leave it to those better qualified to deal with such matters.” Aster tightened her grip around the scraper. “I’m tired of waiting for him to do something. This is our building too. Someone has to listen.”

“Once a jerk, always a jerk. I can see why the landlord likes him. He never disappoints.” And with that, John put his scraper to the wall.

Sunday, March 5

Just before 10 a.m., a group of first-floor tenants joined Aster with their scrapers and went to work on the left side wall, including tenants from the new wing. They too had noticed some plumbing issues and, like Aster, didn’t want to spend their time mopping up water, or worse. Nor did they want to piss off the super again. None of them did.

So as the snow ceded to the sun, friends and family scraped away at the paint. If there was another crack somewhere inside the wall, they’d find it and force the super to fix it. At the very least, they’d force him to bring it to the landlord’s attention.

Whiskey Glasses

Over the days that followed, tenants from the upper floors began to grumble about the first-floor tenants debasing their property. They paid top dollar for their spacious apartments with windows overlooking the river and surrounding trees. They had not paid to look at paint chips. They paid others to look at paint chips.

A few tenants from the first floor posed next to their idols from the upper floors. It was a symbolic gesture. But the suitably appalled first-floor tenants felt special by proxy. The upper-floor tenants, or UFs as they were often called, paid them well to assist the caretakers, expanding their wallets and their connections with each paint chip let loose on the tenants. And by the same token, didn’t they all share the same building and the same contract? Who in their right mind wanted to look at dirty paint chips?

***

As spring drew near and the group outside the old building on Merable Street continued to grow along with the neverending pile of paint chips, the anger from the UFs grew accordingly. The anger spread throughout the upper floors, into the halls, until finally, it reached the super.

Sunday, March 19

Busy invited his guests into the living room, pleased he had insisted that Myra polish every surface until it sparkled. He’d been expecting their visit for the past week and quickly offered them drinks from a bottle kept for moments like this.

The UFs were people of action, rarely second-guessing themselves. Busy saw their clarity of purpose in the mirror every morning, awarding him a sense of kinship.

Mr. Harald sampled the whiskey and nodded his approval. “The first-floor tenants need to go,” he declared with his father’s gold. “Spring’ll be here tomorrow, and I need my walks.”

“What would you have me do? They signed their contracts.” Busy gazed at his favourite painting: Expectation by Richard Oelze. He spotted the reproduction during a vacation to North Central and fell in love with its grey sky brooding over the landscape. He never married, but the painting taught him love was possible. How long did it take to complete? He never did find the answer – not that it mattered. Busy lauded the painter’s singular vision. The time spent was irrelevant.

“Well?” Mrs. Preening looked Busy in his one good eye. She didn’t like him much, but she had to admit the little toad cleaned up nicely. “This spectacle has gone on long enough. My patience grows thinner by the day.”

Mr. Grimly moved away from the window. “My dear friend is right. It’s time to bring down the curtain.”

“It goes without saying that our contracts are second to none,” Mr. Silies pronounced gravely. “We can’t compare diamonds to peanuts, now can we?”

Busy puffed his chest in the familiar act of solidarity. “I’ll speak to Mr. Dippins and make him understand the calamity of your situation. You can leave this debacle in my careful hands. I won’t let you down.”

“You, my friend, are an army of one.” Mr. Grimly took a sip of his whiskey. “And a knowledgable host. You’ve never failed us before. I don’t expect it’ll be any different this time.”

Busy mustered a sheepish grin. “I’m here to serve our tenants.”

***

The elevator stopped on the twelfth floor. Mark waited to escort him with his chest puffed. Busy puffed his chest in rousing response, their only exchange in the eight years they’d been meeting outside the elevator. Busy thought he detected a smile in the eyes of his comrade, but he couldn’t be sure. Mark had an unwavering poker face. A useful skill for a man in his position.

Inside Mr. Dippins’ lavish office, Busy admired the expensive decor as was his custom. And once again, he promised himself the office. Above all else, Busy admired rank.

“Reports have reached me the tenants are unhappy,” Mr. Dippins said from his oak desk. He gestured for his third in command to take a seat.

Busy shifted his eyes away from the piano. During his first visit to the penthouse, he mistook the piano for a sentimental eyesore, and Busy left sentiment to those who could afford little else. Mr. Dippins, on the other hand, could afford a piano for every building he owned.

When questioned, Mr. Dippins had said the piano belonged to his great-grandfather. Busy preferred facts to music, but wanting to appear interested, he asked if his boss could play. In a rare show of cordiality, Mr. Dippins laughed before admitting he had learned one song, then grew bored and moved on to more exciting things like baseball. But the ladies seemed to like it, so he kept the relic to charm their sensibilities in affairs of the heart and business.

Hearing the conspicuous drum of impatience from across the desk, Busy went straight for the jugular. “The UFs beseech you to get rid of the first-floor tenants.” Busy puffed his chest. “As you know, the new building is set to open this summer, so the mess outside couldn’t happen at a worse time. If the UFs think we’re violating their contracts, they may seek more fitting arrangements.”

“All reasonable and fair contracts. It protects everyone. I, myself, signed one in good faith. However, as I look down at the growing numbers chipping away at our historical building, I can’t help but wonder if the first-floor tenants have taken leave of their senses. And now the land wardens are barking about all the damn paint chips. Have you asked them to stop and return to their apartments? Did you explain how it defaces our building, stresses the other tenants, and therefore breaks the terms of their contract?”

“I did. But they insist there’s a problem with the piping and maybe the walls. At any rate, I didn’t want to argue with them. An emotional lot as you know. They claim to be fulfilling the terms of their contracts by protecting the building.”

“Yes, well, I see no other option than to terminate their contracts at this point. We can’t stand by while the other tenants grow increasingly stressed and upset. Our reputation already took a blow to the knees. But if the UFs were to move, the optics could ruin us. Not to mention the loss in revenue. Where the hell do they think the new first-floor apartments came from? If only snowflakes were money.”

“There still wouldn’t be enough sense to go around.” Busy shook his head in disgust. Although it did make his job easier. “Where will they go?”

“They should’ve thought of that before taking scrapers to the building. The paint is less than a year old, for Pete’s sake. We can’t have tenants breaking their contract while so many wait in the cold. I trust you’ll inform them as soon as possible?”

***

Busy studied his painting from across the living room. The trees reminded him of Mr. Dippins’ desk. It would be his desk someday. He leaned back in his favourite chair to savour the image. The soft leather was a far cry from the canvas walls of his youth. His parents would’ve been proud. They always said he was too smart for the first floor. Busy smiled in satisfaction.

Tomorrow was the first day of spring, and the first-floor tenants would rejoin the homeless waiting for their chance. But the terms were clear. Instated after the housing collapse, the contract guaranteed a fixed rental fee for all first-floor tenants. And it guaranteed everyone’s right to enjoy a safe and healthy living space.

As always, the UFs would want to pay their respect with more than a string of empty words. Today had brought him closer to the twelfth floor than the last three years combined. Busy glanced at his pocket watch: 11:10. Five more minutes until he called it a day. He never stayed up until the 12 o’clock curfew. A man needed his sleep. And today had proven more exciting than most.

He brushed his teeth for exactly two minutes, flushed the toilet twice, then once more for good measure. Out with the old and in with the new, his father used to say. Pleased with the fruits of his labour, Busy turned off the hall light and thanked Aster for her sacrifice. She would never know, but her naive heart had secured his future.

For his final act of the day, Busy placed his watch on the nightstand. A gift from the Grimleys in 2042, he kept it close as a reminder of his loyalties. The UFs never forgot their friends. He cracked another smile. Under the bed, a cockroach scurried to safety.

The Hands of Time

The wind snapped at the trees on the feathered tail of a northwester. At 913 Merable Street, the windows rattled, while locked safe in her bed, Aster counted back to the lost and found.

Humming to the telltale ticking of a new moon, the last sheep paddled to where Aster spun round and round the tent.

“Hello there,” the last sheep hailed upon coming ashore. He pulled his canoe onto the river bank and straightened his shirt.

Aster stopped to smile at him. “Want to help me?” She picked up a scraper from years past and pointed to a red wall. “No one will mind so long as we don’t wake them.”

“Perhaps during our next visit,” the last sheep replied. “Would you like to go for a walk instead?”

“Will it be scary?”

“No nightmares tonight,” the last sheep said gently, wanting to comfort his young guest. She had already seen too many of those. He took her by the hand. It was time.

***

Chomping at the air, Busy dreamt of laboured skies. Beneath the slow-marching clouds, a proud legion of men and women gazed into the abyss. To his right, a lone woman stood with her back against the spectacle.

What was she staring at? Busy turned atop his minute hand to inspect the plain-dressed woman, whose only embellishment were two pink flowers. He tried shaking the hand on which stood his consequence. Then he shook it some more. But like the crowd, he could not turn away.

©Brenda Baker 2022

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