The collective memory absorbed emotions from the new migrant group. In its dream state, it did not pause to focus on the emotional energy but let it flow into the gravity well housing its accreting strength. Despair, anger, frustration and most of all, wonder, were the tools the memory would use to prod, guide and eventually lead, all of them to its goal.
Luis Parescio held the receiver. This wasn’t a matter to delegate over the phone. It shouldn’t be his sole responsibility but Dr. Mendoza and his staff were fighting another epidemic, leaving Luis to give the orders. He dialed the number.
After two rings, he wanted to hang up, delay the necessary evil but his call was answered. “Is that you, Landen? This is Luis. Would you come to my office? Yes, now please, if you can.”
While Luis waited for the maintenance head he stared at the evening’s lights outside his tower. He could see more of the city at night by the lights and fires than he could during the day. This is a grim truth. The city disintegrates under its own weight faster than I would think possible, pulling down infrastructure as it disassembles. The hospital might close completely next year.
A knock on his door roused him from the uncomfortable speculation. “Come in.”
Landen Guicano was not a close friend but Luis had grown to trust and respect him after labor negotiations pitted them against each other on a few occasions.
“Landen, please sit. I couldn’t relay this matter over the phone. It is difficult for me but I will not hide my face when I say what must be done.”
Landen looked concerned. “You can’t mean more layoffs. We are below any reasonable number of maintenance staff now. I…”
Luis cut him off. “No, no. It isn’t more layoffs. It is however, more cutbacks.” Luis leaned against the front of his desk and met Landen’s eyes straight on. “I thought my last round of belt-tightening would be enough to get us through to the end of the year. I have cut back on everything I can think of without endangering the patients. I have pushed you and your people, and the doctors and nurses too, unmercifully. To provide mercy to the sick.” He paused. He wanted Landen to realize that they were all together in this. He did not know if Landen agreed with him, but Luis had to say it, for his own sake. “It hasn’t been enough. I have combed through our operations again and I find areas where I would not recommend cuts but the Board wanted to review them anyway.” Luis took a deep breath and turned away. This was harder than he imagined. Why couldn’t I tell him over the phone? Because it would be easy and it should not be. “The Board has instructed me to carry out the additional cuts.”
“You’re firing me,” said Landen softly.
“No. I’m asking you to do something to help us all. And all the future patients who otherwise may never be served by this hospital.” Luis picked up a sheet from his desk and passed it to Landen. “I have stopped payment to our medical waste disposal contractor.”
Landen jumped up. “What? How will we dispose of the material? Our incinerator fuel ran out months ago. And it can’t handle the volume nor the higher temperature items regardless.”
“I know. I’m not proposing we use our own facilities. Or anyone’s.” Luis slumped.
“That leaves only the civic dumps.”
Luis nodded. “You will instruct your men to include our medical waste with our normal garbage until further notice.” Luis sat, exhausted. He pushed an envelope across his desk. “Here is a little money to bribe the dump operators.” He didn’t tell Landen the money was his own.
“My men? I am my men. I am the one you ask to do this. Luis, I have respected you for many years. I cannot respect your judgment in this. There must be other expenses we can cut.”
“I have lost respect for myself, Landen. I wish there were other things to do but we’ve run out of options. I tell myself this may only be until the new year.” If only he believed it.
Landen’s shoulders drooped. “I see how hard this is for you, Luis. I’m glad you asked me here in person. I’ll do what you ask on the condition that you let me do what I can to seal the most hazardous material before I load it. It will take extra time.”
“I can authorize some overtime,” said Luis. “Thank you, Landen, the hospital must survive.”
Landen nodded and left.
Luis stood behind his door. His words echoed. The hospital must survive. At what cost? I cannot hide from my conscience. When the hospital recovers from this crisis, I will resign.
Elena hugged the lifeless body to her chest and rocked back and forth. Carlos had been unable to pry the child from her arms in the two days since Rafael had died.
The boy and his older brothers had been scrounging in the dump closest to the shanty town when Rafael had picked up a new-looking box. Thinking it must contain valuable goods to be in so new a box, the boy opened it. He reached inside and pulled out his hand, screaming. A used hypodermic needle pierced the length of his finger and another stuck into his palm. Ramone and Higuero carried him howling back to their hut. By the time a nurse came, three days later, it was too late. Carlos’s youngest son was dead.
Carlos knelt in front of his wife. “Please, Elena. You must let me take him.”
Elena stared blankly ahead and continued to rock.
“We have no more tears,” said Carlos. “Look at the rest of our children. They need both of us. Little Angelina cries for her mother to return to her. We can do nothing more for Rafael except put him to rest. The priest and God wait for him.”
Elena seemed to focus on the children huddled together on the other side of the cramped hut. Carlos tried her arms once again. He loosed them and rose with the feather-light body of the child. Carlos could not look upon Rafael’s face or he knew he would lose his resolve and collapse. He bent to pass through the door of the hut to the harsh world.
Julia called out. “Papa, do you want me to come with you?”
“No. You are needed here. Comfort your mother and your sister.” He followed the path to the mission.
There were others on the path, carrying not their dead children but their belongings, as Carlos had done when he arrived at the city. Some of these people he knew and they expressed sorrow at his loss.
Voice cracking, he asked, “Are you leaving? Where will you go?”
“Away from the city. North, south, does it matter?”
They continued on their way.
Carlos diverged from their route with his small burden. He walked far to bring his son to the priest. Before he passed on the body he said, “I am sorry I brought you to this city, Rafael.”
Many hours later, Carlos returned to the main path, occasionally passing more groups and families on their way out.
His hut would seem smaller now without Rafael’s laughter. What would there be to laugh about?
A wasp flew past and Carlos swore at it. “Away, damn you.” His voice barely raised above a whisper in the city’s choking air. I must get out. It was a mistake to come here. Starvation would be preferable to this slow descent into hell.
A crowd gathered in front of the hut. “What is it?” he cried. “What has happened now?”
He pushed past his neighbors and ducked under the door. Camila, the woman who had seen to Rafael when the boys had brought him home, knelt over Julia, brushing her face with a rag. Elena sat on the floor unmoving, holding Angelina close.
Camila looked around and said to him, “She was…attacked. Assaulted.”
“Papa?” Julia’s voice trembled. “I am all right. I shouldn’t have gone alone. I went to fetch water for mama. It’s always been safe. I didn’t see…they pushed me down and…” She cried.
“Cry now, Julia,” said Camila. “Your papa is here now to protect you.”
Carlos dropped to his knees, stunned. He scanned the hut. “Where are the boys?”
“Looking for the gang,” said Camila. “I couldn’t stop them.”
Carlos struggled to his feet, resolve strengthening him. “I will find them before they are hurt. Will you please stay until I return?”
“Of course, Carlos. As long as you need me. Julia has looked after my daughters many times when I have been late.”
Carlos found Ramone and Higuero before they found the rapists. The three of them returned to the hut in darkness but unharmed. Once inside, Carlos thanked Camila and the boys escorted her home. When they came back Carlos announced, “I chose to come here and now I choose to leave. Away from this city of foul air and constant danger.” Boys growing into animals instead of adults. The adults were no better. How could men put fatal objects in the dump? Was the danger not apparent to them? If they had lost a son, it would be different but the value of Rafael wasn’t enough to make a difference.
Elena sat up. “Leave? Where will we go?”
Julia answered. “We will go north. To America.”
“We will never cross the border,” said her mother.
“We will find a way,” said Julia with a confidence which bolstered Carlos.
Elena spoke no further but collected the children’s few extra pieces of clothing. Carlos gathered what little they’d accumulated in two months. “Children,” he said, “carry what you can and wait for mama and me outside.”
Alone, Carlos said to Elena, “We will help harvest fruit and vegetables on the way to the border.” He tried to put life into his voice, hoping Elena would respond in kind but she remained remote, moving only by will. Carlos put his hand on her shoulder. “Elena, I am sorry to all of you that we came here. And that we stayed too long.”
Elena held him. “It is not your fault, husband. It is no one’s fault. You couldn’t know this was a bad place. You were doing your best to save us. You don’t have to reassure me, we are together. If we had stayed on the farm, you would have had to go far away to work, leaving us for months at a time. That would be no good. Rafael is gone, we will speak no more about his fate. Julia is the strongest, she will recover.”
Carlos broke down and wept. “I will never stop thinking about Rafael and what pain I’ve caused Julia.”
Ramone called through the door. Carlos hoisted their few possessions and stepped into the night. The stars twinkled here and there through breaks in the smog. He led the way along the path. He didn’t look back as they joined the informal march.
Luis eyed the vista stretched out from his office for the last time. The window was streaked from the previous week’s rain. The brown air quickly recovered from the rain to resume choking the life from his city.
“Disgusting, isn’t it, Luis?”
Luis turned to Mendoza. “I won’t miss it. I will miss the hospital but not what I have to do any more. Nor will I miss my city.”
“I envy you,” said Mendoza. “I wish I had the courage to leave.”
“It requires more courage to stay. I am a coward. I can’t stay and continue to face what must be done. I won’t face my responsibility.” He lifted a sheaf of paper from the desk. “The computer is clean and these are the only hard copies left documenting our waste disposal efforts. I will destroy them for you.” He extended a hand and Mendoza shook it.
“Good luck, Luis.”
Luis thought about the journey before him. He had liquidated everything he owned to buy gold, believing it would be universally valuable. On his way to the underground parkade, he ensured the files were shredded. His step was a shade lighter as he pushed through the metal doors into the concrete cavern.
His rusted car coughed to life and he began the long drive to the outskirts of the city which was no longer his home. Without a clear plan, he angled northward, contemplating the chances of buying his way across the border.
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