‘Desolation Corner’, William Squirrell

Illustrations © 2021 L.E. Badillo

For Moo.

 [ Salvation, © 2021 L.E. Badillo ] The dead zone was about a half a mile from the gas station where Sammy worked. It was in an underpass which was under an overpass which was under another overpass which made the middle overpass an underpass too. The self-driving taxi would follow the expressway as it plunged under all those layers of concrete and rebar and the wifi would vanish for the duration of the dive. The car would have to operate without access to satnav or offboard AI. The ads on the windows would flicker and vanish, the radio die, and for a minute or so Sammy would hear the rush and roar of the traffic and the hum of the tires and see clearly the world that lay beyond the perpetual ghost dance of Coca-Cola-Arby’s-U.S. Marines-Geico-Farmer’s-Pharmaceuticals-Pharmaceuticals-Pharmaceuticals-Robert Morris University-Taxi-Taxi-Taxi. There was a sharpish turn at the nadir of the dive and when it rained and the embankment shimmered with water the reflection of the LiDAR in that surface occasionally startled the unsupported onboard computers into driving onto the shoulder or into the oncoming traffic. This unfortunate location was known locally as Desolation Corner, and there were people living down there in the shelter of the cavernous arch who scavenged the frequent wrecks.

The gas station was a franchise in the Fritzo chain and still hybrid. Both in the sense that it was not yet fully automated and that it still had a pair of actual gas pumps in the back for the hobbyists and luddites. But most of the action took place up front where the robotrucks and self-driving cars would slide into the charging stations and the passengers would disembark to stretch their legs and have a smoke and get a bite to eat. Sammy was there to stock the shelves with Cheetos and Fig Newtons, the coolers with drinks and frozen burritos, make sure the coffee stayed fresh, wipe out the microwaves, wake up anyone who fell asleep at the picnic tables, and check the ID of people buying cigarettes and edibles and booze. Management was all offsite. And out-of-state. They’d call you if they had something to say. Someone named Ted would call you. Wanda, who trained Sammy and had the shifts before and after, said she wasn’t convinced Ted was a real person. She sometimes tried to trip him up with personal questions but she hadn’t yet caught him out as algorithms.

“He says he lives in Boise.” Wanda was fifty and always sounded pissed off. “He says he’s a Broncos fan. Divorced. Two kids. Says managing a Fritzo is a part time gig. Says he’s a real estate agent and often calls from the car between showings. I asked him what his favorite holiday was and he said Easter which is a bit weird. But maybe he’s just some kind of evangelical.”

It was Wanda who told Sammy about Jeffery. Jeffery lived in the seething wall of bush that rose out of the earth behind the Fritzo and ended in massive concrete barrier that bounced all the noise from the highway back down the hill. Beyond the barrier was, Sammy believed, a suburban paradise of cul-de-sacs and manicured lawns and brilliant blue swimming pools. A shining city on the hill.

“Don’t let Ted know, but the staff let Jeffery use the bathroom for his toiletries,” Wanda said.

“Don’t the cameras pick him up?”

“Jeffery has this gift,” said Wanda. “He finds the blind spots in the coverage. Just drifts along like a jellyfish in a current, wandering about the parking lot, never actually under surveillance for more than a second. It’s like he is allergic to the camera, starts to itch when he feels watched. Fritzo seems to think he’s a glitch.”

Sammy raised an eyebrow.

“I know,” said Wanda. “It’s uncanny but you’ll see. We leave the door open a crack for him between the overnight and early morning shifts so it’ll be just us two that know about it. He won’t bother you. Sometimes he comes in and buys a few cans of tuna for his cat.”

“Is the tuna in a blind spot?”

“Actually,” said Wanda. “Yes.”

Across the highway was a boarded up motel beyond which that the land dropped away towards the industrial river: cranes and factories and chains of low barges carrying scrap iron. At the end of a shift Sammy would chat with Wanda for a minute or two and then weave through the traffic to the motel parking lot to call for a ride and watch the early morning fog burn away. That was where Jeffery—only a day or two after Sammy started—made his appearance.

Sammy had seen him first far below the motel, a distant figure picking his way up the dirt path that originated near the edge of a housing compound. He followed the path across the tracks and as it cut back and forth up the scrubby slope. He climbed slowly but steadily, never pausing, head down, a moving element of the feral landscape.

“Hi,” said Sammy when the man reached the end of the path and stepped onto the ruined tarmac of the parking lot. He was tall and angular with a wispy beard. He wore a wool cap and a frayed red cardigan. “I’m the new night shift worker at the Fritzo. Are you Jeffery?”

“Yes,” said Jeffery.

“Wanda mentioned you,” said Sammy. “She said I was to leave the bathroom door open for you.”

Jeffery nodded once, and then continued on his way.

Sammy rideshared with a semi-random collection of commuters. Usually no one exchanged more than a nod and then went back to their reading or the music or their texting or just got lost in the ads that streamed across the windows. That’s what Sammy did: disintegrate into the smooth flow of beautiful things and lifestyle shots and flawless faces gently flushed in a permanent state of pre-arousal. It was safer than falling asleep. Safer than dreaming. But there was one guy who always tried to talk to Sammy. Declan. He was the night watchman at some factory. Declan was from a law enforcement family, from generations of cops and prison guards and security bros and immigration officials and strike breakers. Declan knew Sammy was in college and it irritated him.

“How’s the studying?”

“Keeping your nose in the books?”

“Why not criminology? You’ll never run out of work.”

“What about the LSAT? Have you written the LSAT? What did you get? How did you do? I wrote it once. Did alright. How did you do?”

When the car dropped down into the dead zone of Desolation Corner Declan would never fail to have something to say about the homeless people waiting for the wrecks:

“My cousin Gerry temps with the State police when they’re understaffed, which is always, and he says they won’t patrol the zone. Officially it’s a jurisdiction thing but the truth is it’s because there are so many whack jobs down here. Lots of crazy vets who know ten ways to kill a guy with their bare hands and a rolled up magazine. The City police don’t like it any better. Nobody comes down here. No law enforcement. It’s anarchy. It’s like crossing the border. It’s like Mexico. Like Juarez.”

“Last Wednesday the City lost a drone down here. The homeless dudes perch up there under the overpass and drop weighted nets on the drones and then dismantle them for parts to sell or trade for drugs. Third one in a week. It was a record.”

“My cousin Gerry says they should just gas the lot of them like roaches. You wouldn’t have to kill them or nothing. Just make it unpleasant. They got this new tear gas laced with nerve agents so that even after you wash it out of your eyes you feel like there are insects crawling around under your skin. People scratch the fuck out of themselves. Tear their hair out. Pull out their finger nails. Bloody messes. Easy to identify. That would get them outta there pretty quick. It’s not safe. Having those guys down here. They don’t just wait for the crashes, they instigate them. Gerry says once two of them stood at the corner with a ten foot mirror and deliberately interfered with the LiDAR of a delivery of Rolling Rock from Latrobe. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

Ted called Sammy for the first time two weeks into the job. It was four in the morning and Sammy was refilling the soap on the eco-cleanse mopbot in the utility closet.

“Listen, Sammy,” Ted’s voice was suddenly in the closet with her, suspended in the chlorinated air. “I hate to bother you but company rules are you can’t study on the job. My receipt says you are studying over three hours every night.”

“Your receipt?”

“Yeah. The time-motion receipts. The day’s video data gets analyzed every night and sent to me.”

“But I’m completing all my assigned tasks.”

“Sure, yeah, sure,” Ted sighed. “You’re a great worker but they’re not paying you to study.”

“One of the reasons I took this job was so I could study while I worked. I’m getting everything done. How many times a night do they want me to rearrange the potato chips?”

“I know, I know,” said Ted. “But listen, it’s not up to me. So long as the shelves are stocked and the coffee fresh and no one is sleeping at the rest stop I’d be fine with it but the metrics have changed. I have no control over it. And every minute you are studying or texting a friend or watching a movie is going to come out of my paycheck as well as yours. So it’s costing me, right, personally?”

“Sorry about that, Ted.”

“No problem. I know it’s boring to just stand there. And it doesn’t feel fair. But it’s all recorded and analyzed and then they send me a receipt and then I got to deal with it.”

“Sorry, Ted.”

Jeffery would dance slowly across the parking lot, in and out of the cameras’ view, past the charging stations, past the ice and the firewood and the propane tanks, right past the Fritzo store, out into the back parking lot and in and out of the old gas pumps: one step forward, slide-to-the-side, slide-slide, twirl, two steps forward, slide, one step back, twirl twirl.

“Electric Boogie,” Sammy would say, and the Fritzo sound system would provide a soundtrack.

“Shut Um Down.”


“Rockafeller Skank.”

One step forward, slide-to-the-side, slide-slide, twirl, two steps forward, slide, one step back, twirl twirl. For a few minutes the Fritzo was a slo-mo funky reggae dance party, then Jeffery would be gone and Sammy would change the music. For the rest of the time it was just drunk college kids with the munchies, dads getting out of the house, exhausted commuters and travelers and robotruck attendants buying stimulants and food.

Jeffery stood staring at the tuna. He stood there for what seemed like five minutes before he selected three cans identical to all the other cans. Then he drifted over to the register and offered Sammy a fistful of crumpled bills.

“Cash?” Sammy laughed. “We never see cash anymore.”

Jeffery said nothing and when he reached out for the change Sammy saw he had no fingernails.

Wreckage was strewn all through Desolation Corner: tires, twisted metal, powdered glass. Yellow police tape fluttered in the wind that came rushing through the underpass in the heavy weather. The homeless people watched the traffic from up in the shadows of the concrete rafters.

“They set off some kind of an EMP bomb,” said Declan. “My cousin Gerry said they made it from a taxi battery they had salvaged and they waited specifically for a Trader Joe truck. Specifically. Gerry says someone is going to get killed.”

Ted called again.

“Listen, Sammy, hate to bother you,” he said. “But you guys can’t let that homeless man use the bathroom anymore.”

Sammy said nothing so Ted tried again.

“Some of the employees are letting a homeless guy use the bathroom and we can’t have it. The city wants to clear all those people out of the underpass down there so we have to help discourage them from hanging about. They’re a hazard. And it’s upsetting for the customers to see that guy in there.”

“Did someone complain?” asked Sammy.

“We all have to be good citizens,” said Ted. “Just make sure the door is closed, OK? And only give the barcode to paying customers, right?”

“Sure, Ted.”

“That piece of shit,” Wanda was furious about Ted’s injunction against Jeffery’s bathroom use. “It’s not like it costs Fritzo anything to let a guy brush his teeth in there.”

“Well,” said Sammy. “I guess the water isn’t free.”

“Don’t fact-check me, Sammy,” said Wanda. “It’s obnoxious. Nobody likes a smartass.”

They were in a parking lot blind spot Jeffery had shown Wanda, having a smoke and waiting for her ride.

“If we just printed off the barcode on a piece of paper he could use that,” said Sammy. “He wouldn’t need a phone. We wouldn’t even have to leave the door open. He could just get in and out whenever.”

Wanda cocked her head at Sammy and blew out a stream of smoke.

“That’s more like it, kiddo,” she said. “That’s more like it. Be useful.”

There was a police van with aerials in the parking lot. One of the cops came in to get three coffee and a dozen donuts. He was young. Blonde and rosy cheeked.

“What you guys up to?” asked Sammy.

“Monitoring those homeless guys that live down in the underpass,” said the cop. “There’s weird shit going on down there. And it’s tricky with the drones. Interference and feedback and shit. So we gotta be right on top of them.”

Jeffery emerged from the bush across the parking lot. The cop stood there with his tray of coffees and his donuts and watched him.

One step forward, slide-to-the-side, slide-slide, twirl, two steps forward, slide, one step back, twirl twirl.

“Blue Danube,” Sammy wanted to say to change the Fritzo music. “Waltz of the Flowers.”

The cop shook his head.

“Jesus Christ,” he said.

“You’re Dancing This Dance All Wrong,” Sammy wanted to say, because it would have been the perfect song but it would have been too weird with the cop standing right there.

Declan was very excited when Sammy told him about the police van. He texted Gerry about it right there in the taxi but Gerry never got back to him.

“I bet they got those new scuttling drones in there,” said Declan. “They look like centipedes and can crawl up walls and across ceilings. I bet they’re going to map out the whole of the zone before they go in. Not just with cameras and LiDAR but with chemical sniffers to detect all the organics as well. You just turn a few of those centipedal drones loose and they scuttle about everywhere. They’ll explore every nook and cranny. They just keep exploring and exploring and exploring until you call them home.”

Declan’s eyes were half-closed when he talked about drones. And out of focus. His breathing slowed, grew deeper.

“That’s what you should be learning to do,” he said and sat up, pupils dilating, a flush crawled up out from under of his collar. “You should be learning to code that kind of shit.”

Sammy ignored him.

“You can weaponize those crawlers,” he sank back down into the seat, eyes hooded again. “You can adapt them to deliver poison and biological agents. The target thinks an insect bit them but look out. Look out. You deliver the payload and then just wait. They use them on protestor camps sometimes. Instead of agent provacateurs. They get those crawlers to pump a few anarchists full of acid or speed or PCPs or the whole lot and then stand back and watch all hell unleashed. Ask those guys if they’re using them. Those cops in the van. Ask to see them. They’re called c-bots. Ask them if they’re using c-bots.”

The next time the young cop came in for coffee and donuts he declined to indulge in chit-chat with Sammy.

“Sorry,” he said. “Told we can’t talk to the civilians. Not supposed to fraternize. But thanks for the coffee.”

Declan was crushed when Sammy told him.

“Maybe next time take the coffee out to the van,” he said. “Have a peek inside.”

Sammy was standing by the tuna studying in the blind spot when Jeffery came in.

“How you doing, Jeffery?” Sammy said.

Jeffery nodded.

“Tuna?” Sammy asked.

Jeffery shook his head and walked over to the toilet paper.

“Wanda says you can find the blind spots in the surveillance,” said Sammy. “Like by the tuna. She says you have a gift. She says it’s like you’re a psychic.”

Sammy walked over to the register.

“She says it’s uncanny.”

Jeffery waited patiently for his change.

“Uncanny,” said Sammy.

Wanda’s kids had convinced her there was a backdoor to what they called Algorithm Ted. They told her she just had to figure out the right sequence of words and she’d be able to hack him. Get right into his head. They said there was always a backdoor built into the system and she could find the key words by studying Ted’s speech patterns. The coders always put in a backdoor for those who knew where to look. That’s what her kids had told her and she was convinced.

“I’m going to get into his head,” said Wanda.

“Unless he’s human,” said Sammy.

“He’s not human,” said Wanda. “He’s a piece of shit. They said it’ll be words he uses a lot. They said to look for patterns. For repetition.”

“Try: ‘Listen, Sammy, hate to bother you,’” said Sammy.

Occasionally when the sun came up Jeffery’s cat would emerge from the bush and sit on the very edge of the Fritzo parking lot staring off into the middle distance. Feet tucked tidily into the curl of his tail, ears pointed straight up, perfectly motionless.

“Listen, Sammy,” said Ted. “Hate to bother you, but is Wanda alright?”

“What do you mean, Ted?”

“Well,” said Ted. “She’s acting a little odd lately.”

“Odd how?”

“She keeps repeating back everything I say to her.”

“She keeps repeating back everything?” said Sammy.

“Haha, very funny,” said Ted. “Fritzo is a little worried about her mental health. They really do care about our wellbeing, you know? The wellbeing of their employees.”

“I haven’t noticed anything in our personal interactions,” said Sammy. “She’s probably just playing with you, probably just her sense of humor.”

“Probably,” said Ted. “Probably just her sense of humor.”

“Now you’re doing it,” said Sammy.

“Doing what?” asked Ted.

Sammy was having a smoke with Jeffery by the deserted motel. The cop van was across the highway at the Fritzo.

“You think they’re watching us?” asked Sammy.

 [ Desolation, © 2021 L.E. Badillo ] The cat was weaving in and out of his legs. Its name was Energy. Energy was a very long cat; black and white, with yellow eyes. If he was just a little longer he’d be able to bite his tail and become a leminscate as he wound in and out of Jeffery’s legs.

“He’s like a snake,” said Sammy when Jeffery didn’t answer. “Half snake, half cat.”

“He’s in transition,” said Jeffery. “Evolving. He is the way off this plateau. He is the way out.”

It was a rainy night and there was a flash of light from the underpass. Shortly after that the vehicles stopped exiting and dark clouds of oily smoke came pouring out.

Sammy walked outside to watch. Rubber was burning down there. Plastic. Oil.

In the distance the sirens started. The police van sat quietly. No light was visible inside. By the time the first ragged people came staggering out of the underpass the air was filled with drones: police drones, city maintenance drones, drones from TV stations, from ambulance services, lawyers, hobbyists. The air was filled with the whine of drones. But the police van just sat there. Sammy ran in and out of the Fritzo getting bottled water for the homeless people, commuters, and truckers gathering on the parking lot. When the ambulances and the fire trucks showed up a few cop cars did as well. The medics checked everyone who came up out of the underpass, and if they were homeless they would pass them on to the cops from the cop cars and the cops would ziptie their hands behind their backs and sit them on the curb. A few of homeless people managed to get a few gulps of water from Sammy’s bottles before they were cuffed. A lot of them were missing their fingernails. By the time the sun was rising there was no longer smoke coiling out of the underpass. The commuters and truck drivers had all been picked up by taxis or carted off by ambulances to hospitals, and the city had crews cleaning up the underpass. A school bus arrived and the homeless people were loaded into it. When everyone was gone Sammy gathered up all the plastic bottles and dumped them into the recycling bin.

“Those dumb motherfuckers EMPed a fuel truck,” said Declan.

At Desolation Corner the road was black with soot and melted rubber. A few people still lingered up in the shadows.

“Gerry says there are still dozens of them down here,” said Declan. “Refusing to leave. Says they’re terrorists.”

Sammy snorted.

“Laugh it up, Chuckles,” said Declan. “Lots of former antifa. Lots of anarchists on the run.”

“Maybe it was just an accident,” said Sammy. “Maybe they thought it was the Rolling Rock truck.”

“Is that what the kind of logic they teach you in college?” Declan laughed. “Be a helluva coincidence if the one time they get the wrong truck it’s carrying fuel and starts a major conflagration.”

“Would it?”

“Yes,” said Declan. “It would.”

“Say, Sammy,” said Ted the following day. “Sorry to bother you. That was a great gesture, handing out the water like that, very kind. Empathetic. But I’m afraid those items were for sale and the cost will be coming out of your next paycheck.”

“Sure, Ted,” said Sammy.

“Also, while Fritzo has no problem with charity, and in fact contributes to numerous philanthropic organizations, including some that work directly with homeless people, please remember such activities belong in your private life and not your work life. While you are on the job you are a representative of Fritzo, and such activities as handing out water to criminals and trespassers, however well-intentioned, might be construed as authorized or sanctioned by Fritzo.”

“Of course, Ted. Sorry, Ted.”

“No problem, Sammy,” said Ted. “Really admirable instincts, though, really compassionate. Just not appropriate to the workplace.”

“Sure, Ted. Sorry.”

The cop van was still there.

Sammy brought them coffee and donuts.

“Courtesy of Fritzo,” Sammy said. “Thanks for keeping us safe.”

“Sure,” said the young cop.

Sammy looked past him at all the equipment in the back. The other two cops bent over keyboards, looking at screens. A dozen small drones hung from the ceiling like dead song birds.

“Listen,” said the cop. “I’d be careful about the homeless guy you hang around with. The one that lives up there in the woods. Some of these guys are pretty crazy. Psycho.”

“Jeffery’s OK,” said Sammy.

“Some of these guys are ex-cons. Real bad types. Immigrants. Illegals.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” said Sammy. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“It was a nice gesture,” said Ted. “It really was, and we love the police, Sammy, we really do, but if I don’t take it out of your paycheck I’m going to have to take it of mine. And Fritzo says you need to stop giving stuff away. Please wait until the end of your shift, then buy it, and make it clear you are doing it on your own. Buy the stuff before you give it away, OK? Please?”

“What happened to your fingernails,” Sammy asked Jeffery. They were having a smoke at the motel staring out at the city skyline across the industrial valley. Sammy’s skin was crawling at the thought of the young cop watching them through the tinted windows of the van.

Energy was writhing about in the dirt in lazy throes of ecstasy, stretching his long body into ropes, purring.

“I tore them out,” said Jeffery. “It’s where they used to stick the microchips. After the anti-vagrancy laws. When they’d catch you they’d put them under your nails. Now they put them inside your skull where you can’t get at them.”

Declan was peering up at the rafters through the clear, ad-free windows. Peering up at the little shanty town that had grown up in the joints between the arch and the embankments that supported it.

“Cockroaches,” he said. “Rats. They should clean them all out of there. They should have done it after the fire. The homeowners association of that that suburb above the Fritzo should contract it out to a militia if the city police are too chickenshit to do it. Like the homeowners associations did with those camps in Cleveland. Like in Philadelphia. It’s a fucking blight. It’ll totally bring property values down if prospective buyers know they have to drive through this shit.”

“They’re just people with no place to live,” said Sammy.

“They choose to have no place to live. There’s shelters. There’s plenty of cheap housing if they would just get a job. And don’t start on about mental illness. Plenty of crazy people have jobs. And it’s a choice to go off your medication. To give yourself an excuse.”

Sammy said nothing.

“Any civic-minded citizen could take care of them all with a few bottles of cheap whiskey and some rat poison,” said Declan.

“Stop the car,” said Sammy.

“What?” said Declan.

“I cannot stop here,” said the car. “It’s not safe.”

“Stop the car,” said Sammy. “I have to get out.”

“Is there an emergency?” asked the car. “You will be charged extra for emergency stops that are not a consequence of automobile error.”

“Don’t stop,” said Declan. “There is no emergency.”

“Stop the car now,” said Sammy. “I’ll accept any additional charges.”

The car pulled up onto the shoulder.

“What the hell,” said Declan.

Sammy opened the door and stepped out onto the shoulder. Stepped out into the dead zone. On the other side of the car the traffic rushed past so rapidly Sammy could not distinguish between the vehicles: a relentless roaring cascade of steel plastic and rubber. The air was cold and dry.

“I was joking!” Declan was leaning across the interior of the vehicle. He was shouting. “This is nuts! Get back in! It’s not safe!”

Sammy slammed the door and stepped away from the vehicle. The car slipped off the shoulder, merged with the traffic, and vanished. Sammy turned around. The air was thick with the smell of burned rubber and wood smoke. Daylight trickled in from both ends of the underpass but the sky was not visible. A massive concrete embankment rose up from where Sammy stood by the road towards the bottom of the first overpass. A long row of arches like ribs reinforced the seam that joined the embankment to the bottom of the highway that ran over it. It was like standing in a giant gloomy cathedral. The shacks and shanties built between the ribs of those arches looked like a sort of crenellation. A man was squatting on the slope of the embankment about thirty feet away from Sammy. He was wearing a faded green military jacket with a small black-red-yellow flag sewn on the sleeve, blue jeans, and crocs. Sammy thought he was smiling and smiled back but realized in that instant the smile was an illusion created by the way the bad burn scar on the side of the man’s face pulled his skin up and away from his teeth.

Sammy scrabbled up the slope past the man, scuttling, bent forward, fingers brushing the cold concrete for balance.

There must have been thirty or forty people living up there in shelters constructed out of the flotsam and jetsam of the roaring highway: cardboard, plastic paneling, blown tires, tarps, rope, bungees, pylons, police tape, traffic signs. People sitting and chatting quietly. Smoking. Sleeping. A few small children playing. Sammy heard snatches of English and Spanish, a burst of French or Creole. There were tidy spaces in which were tightly rolled sleeping bags and blankets. Dry goods and bottled water were stacked against the concrete walls. A couple of small fires burning. No one paid Sammy any mind. No one said hello. No one stared for any longer than was reasonably polite. Not even the kids. At the highest point of the concrete embankment on which Sammy was climbing, where the apex was driven into the belly of the overpass, there was a space in which no one had built a home and where there stood, in the shadows, a small statue of the Madonna. Her skin was painted black, her eyes red, and her flowing clothes gold. Both arms were extended, the hands delicately turned so you could see the empty palms and the fingers delicately opening. Scattered about her feet were weedy flowers gathered from ditches and abandoned lots: goldenrod, purple loosestrife, dandelions, chicory, day lilies, clover, Oswego tea. And cultivated plants taken from corporate frontages and traffic islands: hostas, marigolds, snapdragons, zinnias, blackeyed susans.

Ted kept asking Sammy to stop hanging out with Jeffery.

“I know you’re off the clock when you have your cigarettes with him,” said Ted. “But it doesn’t look good for Fritzo.”

“It doesn’t look good for Fritzo?” said Sammy. “I can’t prevent him from asking me for a smoke, it’s a free country.”

“But you don’t have to give him a smoke,” Ted said.

“Don’t have to give him a smoke?”

“I know what you’re doing,” snapped Ted. “Stop repeating everything. “

“Sure, Ted,” said Sammy. “I’ll stop repeating everything.”

“And stop studying in the bathroom. Fritzo is not here to subsidize your education.”

Sammy brought the cops some coffee, but they didn’t roll down their tinted windows. Ted called a half hour later. Jeffery danced across the parking lot.

At about four in the morning five cop cars and a school bus joined the van. Sammy walked out of the Fritzo to watch. A mist was falling through the orange glow of the streetlights. The cops blocked the underpass with pylons. The young cop from the van opened up an aluminum case and, one at a time, threw about a dozen drones into the air, each no bigger than his fist. They hung suspended above the cops for a few minutes. The pilots in the van ran them through a rapid sequence of maneuvers, producing cubes, diamonds, spheres. Then the drones swept towards the open mouth of the underpass and vanished down its maw. The young cop turned back to the van and pulled out a tracked robot the size of a child’s wagon and filled with what looked like cans of beer. The minute he put it on the ground it took off, rolling across the parking lot, over the curb, onto the empty highway and down towards Desolation Corner.

Sammy walked over and offered the new cops coffee and Danishes, but they took nothing and said nothing. Sammy stood near them, watching, until the young cop walked over from the van and said: “Go back to the Fritzo, Sammy.”

The cops watched Sammy walk back to the Fritzo and sit down at a picnic table. Then they all put on gas masks and strolled over to the underpass. Sammy could smell a chemical: noxious and acidic. About ten minutes later the first homeless guy came staggering out of the underpass, hands on his face, slimy with phlegm and tears. The police threw him to the ground, ziptied his hands behind his back. Then the young cop dragged him to his feet and guided back to the Fritzo parking lot and sat him on the curb. Two more staggered up from the underpass by the time the cop got back to his colleagues.

By the time Wanda arrived for her shift there were about fifteen homeless people—men, women and children—sitting in a row on curb—gasping, coughing, wheezing, gagging—and most of the cops had descended into the dead zone.

“What’s going on?” Wanda asked.

She went into the Fritzo and got a bottle of water and some cloth.

“Ted’ll fire you,” said Sammy.

Wanda ignored Sammy and walked over to the people on the curb. The young cop intercepted her. Wanda tried to brush past him and he pushed her back. She tried again and he pushed her down to the ground. The bottle rolled from her grasp. She came back to the Fritzo picking gravel out of the heel of her hand.

“Fucking pig,” she said. “Fucking pigs.”

The cops who went into the dead zone returned with three more homeless people, the drones hovering over their heads, and the beer can robot trailing after them like a dog.

They were loading the homeless people into the bus when Jeffery arrived. He was coming up from the valley and making his way past the motel.

“Oh shit,” said Wanda.

“Fuck,” she hissed. “Fuck. Go away, Jeffrey. Turn around. Go away.”

But Jeffery didn’t turn around or go away, he just kept walking as he always did, across the highway and right past the cops and the homeless people and the bus. He didn’t even give them a wide berth, just followed his usual route as best he could. The new cops were taken aback and might have let him go, but the young cop from the van stepped in front of Jeffery just as he began his anti-surveillance dance routine across the Fritzo parking lot. The cop put a hand on his chest halfway through the first twirl.

“Leave him alone!” shouted Wanda. “Leave him alone!”

The cops didn’t even look at her. The young cop turned Jeffery around and bound his hands.

“He’s not with them,” shouted Wanda and started off across the parking lot.

“Let it go, Wanda,” said Sammy. “Let it go. You can’t do anything. It’s not worth it.”

But Wanda strode across the parking lot.

“He’s not with them,” she kept shouting.

When she got close enough they put her on the ground and tied her hands behind her back. Then they put her in one of the police cars and finished loading the homeless people into the bus. Jeffery looked over his shoulder as they led him to the bus and saw Sammy watching.

“Energy!” he shouted at Sammy. “Energy!”

Then the cop put a hand on Jeffery’s head and turned it around, propelling him through the bus door and up the steps.

Ted asked Sammy to pick up Wanda’s shifts until they found a replacement.

“It’s too much,” said Sammy. “I have school.”

“Just for a few days,” said Ted. “Fritzo needs employees who will go the extra mile.”

“It’s too much, Ted,” said Sammy.

“If you can’t do this for the Fritzo family maybe you need to think about a career switch.”

“A career switch?” asked Sammy and laughed.

Sammy was exhausted. Bathing with a washcloth in the gas station toilets and living off Fig Newtons, cigarettes, and Red Bull. Wanda and Jeffery were gone and Sammy now interacted exclusively with strange men. Strange men with muddled faces preceded the first shift and followed the last. Strange men with muddled faces wearing Fritzo shirts made small talk, brought up the weather, moaned about work, about Ted, about life. Strange men with muddled faces watched Sammy leave open cans of tuna at the edge of the property for Energy. Ted’s disembodied voice drifted in and out of the Fritzo, in and out of consciousness. The ride to and from work was a fog of muddled advertising and spastic starts from half sleep. The descent through the dead zone was no longer a minute of cold-eyed clarity but just another shuddering indistinct moment in the sequence of shuddering indistinct moments from which Sammy’s life was comprised.

Sammy begged Ted to hire more help.

“We’re interviewing as we speak,” said Ted.

Sammy begged Ted to hire more help.

“We have someone lined up for next week,” said Ted.

Sammy begged Ted to hire more help.

“It’s only a matter of time,” said Ted.

Sammy saw spots swimming in the air. Spots forming constellations: cubes, diamonds, spheres. Sammy vomited coffee and Cheetos into the Fritzo toilet. Into the utility closet sink. Sammy vomited writhing masses of centipedes onto the polished Fritzo floor and they would slither and slide away under the display shelves and the fridges. The eco-cleanse mopbot circulated endlessly through the aisles. A six foot-tall Black Madonna stood in the parking lot of the deserted motel eyes blazing with fire and watched Sammy working her way through the assigned task list. A man with a burned face like a plastic smile stood in the corner of the Fritzo bathroom. He never moved. He watched Sammy in the mirror. He watched Sammy vomit centipedes into the sink.

Sammy left open cans of tuna just beyond the borders of the parking lot.

“It’s coming out of your paycheck,” said Ted.

“It’s going to attract rats,” said Ted.




“Cats,” said Sammy. “I’m trying to attract cats.”

“It will attract vermin,” said Ted.

“It is coming out of your paycheck,” said Ted.

“We’ll dock you wages,” said Ted.

“We’ll let you go,” said Ted.

“Please,” said Sammy. “Please let me go. Please.”

Sammy, holding a can of tuna, stepped from the parking lot into the dank woods behind the Fritzo. The trees were thin and scrubby but grew in such a tangle you couldn’t see more than a couple of feet in any direction. Sunlight streamed through the canopy in thick translucent beams. Low, broad-leafed plants covered the ground, a muddy trail running through them. It smelled of decomposition. A fallen tree lay across Sammy’s path. Corrugated bark almost black from the damp was disintegrating in big, buttery chunks to reveal a copper interior inscribed with the worm trails of insect life. Cascades of overlapping orange lichen fed on the bark that was still intact. Sammy stepped over the tree and followed the trail into the cool shadows beyond, tripping over roots, slipping in the wet clay, until the woods opened up into a grassy, concave space like a crater. Here the sky was a blue dome. A steep wooded slope rose up out of the earth on the far side, a great wall rising up, up, up until it ended in the clean, sharp line of the sound barrier that protected the suburb on the hill from the unholy roar of the traffic. There was something like a ragged garden in the clearing; a sprawling weave of pumpkin, corn, potatoes; tomatoes collapsing together in a sloppy hedge. At the far end of it, under the massive vegetal wall, was the opening of a stainless steel culvert. Sammy walked over and peered in. It was perfectly dry. A sleeping bag neatly laid out on a cardboard floor, a pile of blankets at its foot, a pillow at its head. Beyond the pillow the culvert had been sealed off with scavenged bricks and cement. Sammy crawled in and lay down. The bag and the pillow smelled of stale tobacco. There was an empty ashtray handy.

When Sammy woke it was night. Energy was meowing, purring, slithering around the pitch black culvert; muscular, dense, invisible; butting Sammy with his head; relentless. Sammy crawled out into Jeffery’s garden, pulled the tuna can out of a pocket, and opened it up for Energy. Energy, now luminous in the starlight, was rumbling purring squeaking, soft fur sliding over the shifting muscle, weaving in and out of Sammy’s legs, impatient-patient-impatient, a snake trying to catch its own tail. Sammy put the open can on the ground, sat down, and lit a smoke.

The black sky was ablaze with stars. Energy was eating. Sammy smoking. Cool air hissed through the canopy of the trees and Sammy imagined centipedes rushing across the Fritzo parking lot. Mindless and efficient. Collecting information. Mapping the zone. Disappearing into cracks, gutters, weeds, into the bush where Sammy and Energy were relaxing. One of the stars was moving, tracing a slow razor-sharp arc through the chaos of the firmament, the darkness closing up over the wound of its passage as soon as it was made. A plane, thought Sammy, or a satellite. A truck roared past on the highway beyond the trees. Sammy had always liked that sound, of cars and trucks on the highway when you were standing still, the whining intensification of the approach and then the sigh of diminishment. Energy was cleaning himself. Sammy scratched the cat’s little skull behind the ears. Energy didn’t stop, just kept working away. Energy was getting himself clean, getting himself right, getting himself ready.

“For what?” said Sammy. “For what are you getting ready? For what are you getting yourself right? For what?”

“Energy?” said Sammy. “Energy?”

But Energy had nothing to say.

© 2021 William Squirrell

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