Traffic is light today.
I shamble down Park Avenue from my uptown hideaway, heading for salvation.
Traffic lights sit dark and silent, a few of them on broken poles canted across the avenue. There are dark and dead automobiles littering the streets.
Most of them have had their fuel taken; open fuel doors are everywhere, sucking gut wounds in the chassis, game over, kill screen. As I walk past the hordes of abandoned automobiles, I can see the rust just starting to creep up along their bodies.
It's been an interesting year. The Crash was slow, but it came; the end was fast, and we all thought it would never come. Different people count different days - for me, it was when the electricity went out for that last time, and everybody knew somehow it wasn't coming back. That's when the looting started; that's when everything got out of control.
I was an IT worker. With no power, my skill set was instantly redundant. I didn't keep guns in the house. With no weapons, I was vulnerable. I was a relatively soft and out of shape nerd. With no strength, I was a victim.
I'm a lot thinner than I was. I had some food stashed away in cans and vacuum pouches, and I lived on a high floor, so the number of looters that came around wasn't too high. The only thing I had worth taking was a Honda generator that I'd scrounged before the Crash. It was living on my balcony, and I'd welded its frame to that of the built-in balcony rail, making it exceedingly difficult to steal.
Not that a lot of them didn't try.
I've been beaten dozens of times, now. Before the Crash, I was in one fight my whole life; I lost that one too.
There are people still living in New York City. I see them slinking around. They're harder, or slipperier than I. I've existed here this long, but I'm coming to the end of my rope.
Fifty-seventh street is still mostly clear, but it looks like that's because something like a backhoe or enormous bulldozer went through after the cars stopped moving. Maybe someone important's evacuation convoy went through in the days after the Big Jam, when everyone realized that they weren't going to drive out of town and their cars were just targets for fuel thieves.
I'm guilty. I siphoned dozens of cars to keep my generator running.
The problem, of course, is that eventually they'll get around to me. I wasn't much of a threat to anyone; I obviously hadn't stashed a lot of food, my generator wasn't really portable. No reason not to leave me alone, although a lot of them used me as a kickball, finding out these things only after slogging up the stairs to my barricaded apartment. I'd welded bars over the deck-side windows, but most of them realized they could threaten to send a Molotov cocktail in past what was left of the glass, and I'd open the door.
I don't want to burn.
Why did I work so hard to keep the generator? Obvious in hindsight, really - I hadn't let go of the Life. Technology still existed. I spent days hunting around the shortwave bands before giving up, tears blurring the readouts on my old receiver. The national stations had given up the ghost already. Then I kept it going for light, and to power one laptop on which I chronicled my experience of the fall.
I came to realize that the light made me a target, and that nobody was ever going to read what was on the laptop.
So this morning, I ran the generator for the final time; I used those two reams of copy paper I hadn't burned but saved, and printed off everything I'd written. Then I took the ten glass jars I'd saved, painted numbers on them, sealed the manuscript in the jars and tested them by dunking them in a barrel of rainwater. No bubbles. They're on acid-free paper, and I painted the jars to keep out the light - they should do okay for a while.
I left the jars wrapped in bubble wrap, inside a wooden crate, just in case something falls on them.
I know nobody will ever find them.
But I had to make the effort. As a nerd, I'm all about the information.
Forty-ninth street. I'm getting close to my destination. The Met Life Building, once the Pan Am Building. Met Life. I met life. It wasn't a pleasant encounter, I must say. Life seems to have gotten the better of me.
At the base of the building there is a rough barricade of broken cars, desks and debris shoved out the windows, and no few corpses. I scramble over it the best I can, my broken arm making it more difficult than it should be.
Once inside the lobby, I look around, unsure of where I'm going. There is a flare of light; I see a woman standing off to one side, near a wall. She's got a submachine gun of some kind slung patrol-style, muzzle forward, and she's just lit a cigar. "You looking for up?"
I nod, wearily. "Yeah."
"No interest in joining? We can use people."
"I don't think I'd be much good to you."
"Yeah. You got that look on you."
I nod again.
"Okay. Through here. Help yourself."
I nod in thanks, step through the door she indicates. The staircase is dark as pitch. I pull the hoarded Mag-Lite out of my pocket, flick it on, and look up. The light vanishes into the distance. I close the door quietly behind myself and start to climb. One floor. Two. Three.
The tears start around the fifth floor. I'm surprised; I had thought I was past that. The body has other ideas, as always. I'm not even sure what I'm weeping for. The world is long gone. I'm not worth the water. There's not really much to say. Ten floors. Twenty.
By the time I reach the top, after many rest breaks, my arm is aching badly and I'm so out of breath I've thrown up twice. But I make it. At the top is a crash-bar door, still intact. I crash the bar and walk out into the late-afternoon daylight. There is a large red arrow painted on the roof decking, and by reflex I follow it.
I come to a stop some ten feet from the railing. There is a man there, standing up from where he has been sitting on a low wall. Several stubbed-out cigarettes poke up from the concrete next to him.
He's got the look of a teacher in an inner-city school come Friday before the placement exams. All the broken hopes and dreams, and maybe those two or three he needs to keep alive; those are what are keeping him moving. He's wearing a shabby sports jacket, blue jeans, and outdoor sneakers. "Thank God."
"You're here." He lights another cigarette from a carton - honest to god carton! - of Marlboros. Then he hands me the carton and the lighter he used. "Here. These are for you. You'll need them."
"Wait, I came up here-"
"I know why you came up here. Same reason I came up here. But this, there's rules, now. I was taught 'em by the girl was up here when I got here, and you're gonna learn 'em from me."
I nod slowly. "All right. What are the rules?"
"Oh thank God, you're gonna be sensible about it. The rules are simple. You gotta help each other."
There is a brief silence. I break it. "That's it?"
"That's it. I need you to help me. You have to stay and help me. If you need help, you wait for the next person, and you tell them the rules."
I sag slightly. "Wait for how long?"
His voice gentles. "Not long. It won't be long. You know how many people lived in this town?"
I think about it, nod. "Okay."
He approaches. I let him grasp me in an awkward bear hug, and even hug him back for a time. He breaks free, his face wet, and sniffles. "Thanks. When I say, okay?"
He moves to the rail, climbs awkwardly up to stand atop the flat metal band. Looks out into space for a bit. Then he spreads his arms. "Now."
I shuffle up behind him and give him a sharp push.
He glides out of sight with nary a sound, out into the air, freedom, out above the earth that was.
I sigh and look at the rail. He's right. I can't do it. Not without help.
I sit down on the wall, open the carton, and extract a cigarette.
Someone will be along.