Down in the Dumps
One time, at the Flush, Mr. Carlisle gave Hanu a balloon to blow up whenever he was feeling anxious. He was supposed to blow it as big as he could without letting it pop, then let the air out and then do it all over again. The deep breathing and concentration on the task was supposed to be relaxing, or something like that. Hanu blew and blew and blew on that balloon until it was just about ready to pop, but he never felt any less anxious. He eventually just resorted to playing with the thing, which brought more comfort than the actual assignment. Well, one day when he blew it nice and big, he decided to draw a face on it. So he took a marker and put it to the balloon. Obviously he had blown that balloon past its limit, because it immediately popped.
Hanu’s lungs felt like that balloon right now as he ran down the sloped alley. He was afraid that if they pressed any harder against his ribs, they would pop. Life at the Flush never really called for strenuous activity, so Hanu wasn’t exactly prepared for this type of run. But he knew he was running for his life, so he continued to propel himself forward, despite his protesting lungs.
Hanu rushed past garbage cans and small bushes, until there was no more alley left. He didn’t dare cross the street to get to the next alley, so he followed the city block, keeping cover under the awning that lined the business entrances. At least it would be harder to spot him on the cameras from here, he thought.
The siren was still blaring, a little further away now. Not far enough, though. Hanu’s knees began to buckle as he forced one leg in front of the other. More people were filing into the streets now. Was the work day already over? He ran through people- bright bursting blurs against the backdrop of gray- but he didn’t slow down. He cleared several blocks this way, turning corners as quickly and randomly as he could, putting as much space as possible between himself and the scene.
His running slowed now. He pushed clumsily through a furry woman who happened to be walking out of the building as he passed, but Hanu dared not stop to help her up. He didn’t even to care to yell out an apology over his shoulder. To Hanu, everyone was an enemy right now. The alarm had sounded, and he knew an alert would be sent to everyone’s trade.
He cut a corner to run along a tall fence. It looked to be a recycling yard of some sort. There was a break in the fence and it looked just wide enough for him to fit through. Hanu decided to take his chances behind the fence rather than out in the open street, so he side stepped through the gap and dropped himself into a heap of garbage.
And it clearly wasn’t the recycle. On impact, the smell of fetid milk and diapers exploded into the air. This pile clearly came from the Child Development Center. But there was no turning back now, he already chose his pile. Instantly, he burrowed his way deeper into the heap. At least nobody would bother to search for him here, he thought.
Hanu wriggled into a good position. His whole body was covered in a fine layer of garbage with his face open to the sky for fresh air. He laid perfectly still, but his heart and mind were racing. Where did everyone else end up? Why was nobody chasing him? Had they already pinpointed him and were just waiting for him to stop so they can come and collect his tired body?
He thought about what he would do if they came for him, and where he would go from here. He waited and wondered, watching the progression of the sun across the sky. Some machinery cranked up in the background. Hopefully this wouldn’t be the pile that they chose to incinerate today.
A couple hours later, by the look of the sun, Hanu heard people approaching. Their voices were low at first, then they came closer. There was some shouting, then some shuffling. Then more shouting. They were definitely looking for something. Someone.
Hanu had already thought about his escape plan. He would smear a handful of wet garbage in his pursuer’s face and then take off back through the gap in the fence. Fortunately, Hanu had gotten some time to rest; he was ready for more running now. The voices came closer still.
“I’ll take this pile over here, Boss. But you know nobody in their right mind would hide out here, right? Smell ’uh knock you clean out,” a man said, laughing.
“Well then I suggest we start lookin’ for sleepin’ bodies,” the boss said with a wheezing laugh. “When they wake up I’ll thank ‘em personally for that fifty point reward th’ Council gave us for lookin’.”
“Now don’t spend it all at one place,” the first man said. And Hanu was surprised to feel the man stepping on top of him, compressing hot diaper juice down his legs. Hanu was increasingly grateful that he didn’t have any open cuts.
The man leaned in on Hanu’s face. He couldn’t have been older than forty, but his leathery skin testified to the days spent out in the hot sun as a garbage man. And he was unusually clean for the profession. His face was smooth shaved and he wore his long brown hair back in a ponytail. The man looked down a crooked nose at Hanu.
“Anything over there, Harris?” the boss yelled.
“Nothin’ at all,” Harris answered. Then he moved on to the next heap. Hanu let go of the handful of garbage he was grabbing.
He was confused now. He was certain that man saw him; their noses nearly touched. Did the man decide to just give him a break? Hanu wondered if all of the others were so lucky. Settling back into a comfortable position, he continued listening to the voices. There was more shuffling, then shouting, shuffling, then shouting… until the voices eventually ceased.
The sun was low on the horizon now, and the drones had already finished spraying for the evening. Hanu had to think about what he would do. He thought about home. Could he make his way home if he tried? Who could he go to for help getting there? And even if he did make it home, what would mom do? Would she hide him for the rest of his life?
Hanu remembered when his mom finally took him in for psychological testing. It was almost two full weeks after the principals called the meeting at the school. He ran into her room and jumped on her bed one Sunday morning, excited.
“Mommy, guess what! I had a dream, and it was so real,” he said. He was so happy that he’d had a dream, and that he actually remembered it, that he didn’t notice the terror on her face. He continued on, bouncing around on her bed.
“In the dream, there were these people that told me that humans were special, that we had all this power,” he said, holding his arms out and looking at his muscles, as if he was back in the dream. But he didn’t get to finish. Just then, his mom slapped him across the face.
“But…mom,” he stammered, confused.
His mom got out of the bed, and he could see the look on her face now.
“How long have you been having dreams? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she asked in whispered tones. Her voice was urgent as she got dressed.
“I’m on the committee, and my own son isn’t even stable. How did I not see it before? I can’t keep this a secret,” she said, speaking more to herself than him. She rummaged through her drawers, flustered.
“Put on your clothes, Hanu. We’re going in for testing today,” she said.
Hanu winced. He couldn’t think about it anymore. Home was definitely not an option. He wondered if his father would help. A long time ago, before the Ancient Ones, men and women parented together in the same family. But Hanu wouldn’t even know how to find his father. He didn’t know the man’s name, let alone where he lived or worked.
Whatever the plan, Hanu just had to get up and stretch. Under the cover of darkness, he slowly raised himself out of the trash pile and snuck into the shadows. He felt his way along the fence, looking for another way out that offered a little less exposure from the main street. That, or at least a water faucet. His every move evoked a fresh whiff of hot diaper juice, and after sitting in it for hours he still couldn’t get used to the smell.
Hanu continued following the fence, feeling his way past garbage mounds and benches. The ground was still warm from the day’s sun.
“You weren’t going down without a fight today, huh, kid?” a man said from the shadows.
Hanu stopped in his tracks. He recognized the voice. It belonged to the man who had stepped on him earlier. Harris. He slowly turned around. Harris was sitting on the bench he’d just passed along the fence. He walked right by him and didn’t even know it.
“Everyone’s looking for you and your buddies. They even gave us all fifty points to ensure an honest effort,” he chuckled. The back of Hanu’s neck suddenly grew very hot.
“You did a good job taking out that surveillance tower. Made it harder for them to pinpoint your trade in this area,” he went on.
“We didn’t take it out…I mean, that happened by accident, we weren’t…” Hanu said, allowing his voice to trail off.
“Lucky accident,” Harris said. “So what cha do to earn a fancy chariot into the District? Hardly nobody gets a chance to see the inside of that castle.”
Hanu was reluctant to say anything further. He wondered if the man would chase him if he darted toward the hole in the fence.
“I would’ve turned you in earlier, if that was my plan. Relax,” Harris said.
“Well, we were coming from the Flush… My treatment was failing. Or, I guess I wasn’t really trying,” Hanu admitted. “They were taking us in for override.”
“Man that’s some tough stuff there, kid. You mean you hear voices and all that?” the man said.
“Sometimes,” Hanu said nervously. It was hard for him to admit the strange things he’d experienced in life because he was so used to getting into trouble for it.
“Well, what kind of voices?” he asked, sitting up in his seat.
Hanu looked around, making sure they were still alone. Not that he could see very far, since the sky offered very little moonlight.
“Um, sometimes they talk to me, kind of telling me that the world is fake... or maybe not as it should be. And then sometimes there are voices that come from people. When people are talking I can hear other voices underneath them. Sometimes they ask for help, or they contradict what the person is saying…it gets really confusing…”
Hanu’s voice trailed off again. He didn’t even know why he was explaining his psychosis to a complete stranger anyway. This was crazy. Hanu stood there awkwardly as the man thought about what he’d said.
“Sir, if you’re not going to turn me in, what is it that you plan on doing? Why did you wait all this time for me to come out?” he asked. Hanu knew he was at the mercy of this man, but he couldn’t figure out what in the world he’d want.
“Well, I was curious, honestly. They told us that the escapees were dangerous. But when I saw you in that pile of garbage, I just saw a kid. You’re so young…and you looked so terrified. I needed to know your story. And I wanted to see if I could help you,” Harris explained.
Someone actually wanted to help. But Hanu couldn’t imagine how this man could really be much help, unless he hid Hanu in his apartment for the rest of his life. But he already considered that kind of lifestyle and it just doesn’t seem feasible.
“Well how do you plan on helping now, after hearing my story?” Hanu asked.
“Depends on you. What were you planning after you walked out of here?”
Hanu still hadn’t figured that one out, though. After all of those hours of racking his brain, he still hadn’t even the slightest lead.
“I have no idea,” he admitted, sheepishly. “Maybe if I found the others, we could come up with some sort of plan.”
Harris got up from the wooden bench and spit on the ground.
“Well, let’s get you cleaned up first. Can’t take care of business with you smelling like a three day old feces sandwich.”
The inside of the service building was cold even though the power, along with the air conditioning, was shut down for the night hours ago. Of course, it didn’t help that Hanu had just been hosed down in the yard and was now stripped down to his underwear. Industrial grade soap still frothed in his hair, but he preferred it that way. He was afraid the smell of garbage would linger otherwise.
“Go ahead and dry yourself off as best you can with this,” Harris said, throwing Hanu a shirt from his bag. “I know I’ve got some clothes in my locker that’ll do you some good.”
Harris crossed the room in the dark and rummaged through a small metal cabinet.
“Do you want to know my name?” Hanu said, twisting his soapy hair in the shirt.
“If you care to share it,” the man said.
“It’s Hanu. And you’re Harris. Nice to meet you,” Hanu said into the darkness. Harris couldn’t see it, but Hanu was giving him a pretty good smile.
“Did the voices tell you my name?” Harris asked, laughing at his own wit. Hanu laughed, too.
“No, I learned that fair and square. I heard your boss say it. You know, back when you stepped on me.”
“Oh, yeah,” Harris chuckled, combing his hand through his hair. “Sorry about that.”
Harris shoved a pair of pants and a shirt into Hanu’s hands. Hanu put the pants on. They were a little loose, but they did the job. Then he slipped the shirt over his now dry-enough curls.
“Uh, Harris…you never said how you’re going to help me,” Hanu said. “I know it’s up to me, but I have no idea what I should do now. I can’t go home, and I can’t go back to the Flush. They’re looking for me-”
“You said you wanted to find your friends, right?” Harris interrupted, holding an oddly shaped object up to the window to get a better look at it. In the moonlight, Hanu could see that it had smooth surfaces.
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t know where to start,” Hanu said, gloomily.
“Well, where do the voices say to start?” Harris said.
Hanu laughed. Then he realized Harris wasn’t laughing. It was a serious question.
“It doesn’t work like that,” he said.
“I’m sure it does, actually,” Harris said. “Matter o’fact, I’m sure your friends already told you where they’d be.”
Hanu thought about it. They scattered, just like Ester said. Everyone ran their separate ways. For all he knew they were all captured. He thought about the youngest ones- Zazi and the twins. Were they fast enough to get away? Were they smart enough to hide? He knew Sadie was tough enough to defend herself, but what about Vanessa? And Ester? Where would they go?
“Ester!” he exclaimed, suddenly. It hit him like a sack of bricks. He couldn’t believe it was so obvious. But how could she know?
“That your girlfriend?” Harris teased.
“No, she was on the Convoy with us. It’s something she said right before the crash- ‘when I’m free, that beautiful fountain is the first place I’ll visit’. She went to that fountain. She wants us to meet at The Fountain of Hope!” Hanu said, excited now. Harris clapped his hands together.
“Good, now there’s a start! And to think, you knew it all along,” Harris said. Then he handed Hanu the oddly shaped object. “Put this in your pocket and don’t take it out.”
“What is this?” he asked, rolling it over in his hands. It was pointy at one end.
“It’s going to keep the council from finding you. Scrambles the signal,” he said simply as he walked over to a small closet and pulled out a paper bag. “C’mon, we gotta get outta here.”
“Right now?” Hanu asked nervously. He was starting to feel so comfortable and safe inside the service station, he didn’t want to leave. And so abruptly, too. The thought of going back outside made him feel vulnerable and he just wasn’t prepared.
“Well we won’t be able to move about so freely once daylight hits. Plus, we’ll need to stop at my place for some supplies, but it’ll be necessary if you don’t want the Council on your back. Better take advantage of the darkness while we can,” Harris said.
“And what next? After we find them, Harris?” Hanu asked. He was trying to stall for time, but it was also a good question.
Harris stuffed Hanu’s soggy jumpsuit in the bag and mopped up the water from the floor. Then he turned, letting the moonlight streak across his face as he looked at Hanu. Thinking, he chewed on his lip.
“If you kids can’t figure out a plan,” he said slowly. “I do know of a place that you can go. Somewhere safe for people like you.”
“Well why didn’t you say anything about it earlier instead of beating around the bush?” Hanu laughed nervously.
Harris laughed, too. “Let’s go, kid.”
Harris put a little water on a potted plant in the window and then headed for the door.
“Haven’t watered that baby in days,” he said as he led Hanu into a small hallway. They walked quickly toward the glass door on the other end.
“We’re gonna take the exit to the delivery yard, but we’ll have to walk slowly until we get to those bushes on the other side of the lot. Otherwise that camera over there will pick us up, Hanu, you hear?” he warned.
Luckily Hanu was used to bypassing the cameras this way at the Flush. He was somewhat of a pro at it by now. When Ms. Jones went for her midnight coffee at the nurse’s station, he and Akesh would sneak up and down the hallway to each other’s rooms to hang out. Sometimes Hanu would keep the book he borrowed from the book closet, and they would stay up all night reading and eating snacks they’d horded. It was the closest thing to a sleepover they would ever have.
The two made their way slowly and awkwardly across the empty lot. Hanu’s muscles were tense, despite the slow movements. He was so defenseless in such an open space, and he was ready to take off running at a moment’s notice. Little by little, they made their way to the safety of the bushes.
“Harris?” Hanu whispered.
“Why are you helping me? You’ll be in a lot of trouble if they catch you.”
“I’ll be in more trouble if I don’t.”