What is charity? Some would simply define it as "giving of yourself." But that phrase has lots of meanings...
I seen this show once about how them rich guys on A level live. Most folks I know ain't never been higher than E. I guess I been on D level once, but that don't count much since my leg was busted and I couldn't hardly see with the pain and all. Harry says he's got better upper class morals or something like that than the rest of us, because his dad was raised on C level -- he says. (I don't hardly believe half of what Harry says all the time.) Roge says upper class shit don't mean nothing down here. Roge sees things straight.
Me and him are right-hand pals. We've known each other since before Roge's ma got put in the freezer. That was on H level where we was raised. We done most everything together and ain't hardly ever had a fight.
That's why we both joined the Anarchs. We didn't want to end up getting froze 'cept maybe if we went together. I guess Roge gets kind of scared some times about the freezer, after what they done to his ma. That's the only time when he don't see so straight.
Today we went to the Anarchs meeting like we done every week since we joined up. Merlin (he's the boss) calls us the faggot twins, 'cause neither of us never goes nowhere without the other. I think he's joking, since Roge is blacker'n lights-out and I'm white as junkies' pus. Maybe I got a little black in me but it don't show. I can't hardly tell most times when Merlin is joking. He's got that scar down the side of his face and around his eye. Half his mouth don't never smile and the other half only does when he's mad.
"So, what you cookin' for us today, Boss?" That's Harry. He can't keep his mouth shut more'n five minutes. Roge says Harry is all con. He ain't told the truth yet since he was plopped out on the floor from his poor old ma. "Any revolutions brewing? No, then how about we just go raid the junkie shop down the rail shaft? That's a good old standby."
"Shut your stinking hole, Harry," Roge says. "We want any shit from you, we can unplug your fucking skull and let it drain into the rotting piss gutter."
"Amazing," Harry gibes. "A muscle head gets a few neurons and there's no telling what he'll do next. If I didn't hear a complete sentence coming out of this ape I'd have said it was junkieshit -- "
"Cut out the crap, you two." Merlin isn't smiling, but he's just a little pissed off. He stands up at the end of the table. "You morons were supposed to be scouting level K this past week. I want reports from each of you." We all look down at the table. I trace somebody's name that was carved in it with a knife.
"Halverson, you've been real quiet over there. Would you care to give that rusty trap of yours a couple flaps?" Hal is big and he don't have much to say most of the time. He doesn't look at us, but keeps staring at the table.
"Block one, there ain't much there -- same with two and three. Four got burnt, so there's some loot'n there, but most of it's already been done." He closes his big jaw, so we all know he's said his fill and don't bother him for more.
"Anybody check out five or six?" Merlin asks. He knows Sam's the one that done it, but he never talks straight to Sam.
She don't talk to him neither but scuffs with her foot in the dust and says in her husky voice, "Passed through Block two on the way. Kid I talked to says they got a remote hookup to the Network restricted channels. Says it came from -- "
"I want to hear about five and six, not the goddamn sight seeing tour on the way there." Merlin turns and talks to the gutted wall. "Halverson's done block two anyway. If he says there's nothing worth pick'n, then we ain't gonna bother to try."
Sam kicks harder with her foot, but stays cool. "Six's got a couple junkie shops -- that's it. Five was getting fumigated. Maybe we could get in. I don't know."
"How 'bout the twins?" Merlin says as if he hadn't even heard Sam. "Did you clowns take a stroll through seven to ten?" Roge and I look at each other in that crap-in-the-pants surprised way. I should've known we had more than two blocks. We only done seven and eight.
Roge jumps in real quick. "Seven's got a back-room pawn shop. Alex and me seen some of their stuff. A few power packs, and a stash of them old police slugs was the best of the lot. They had a couple muscles to protect the place, but no arms we could see. Eight was a dud, and hell, so were nine and ten."
I can feel Merlin's eyes burning holes in my head. I'm thinking real fast and just sort of blurt out, "Nine's got that Magic Man." I never was a fast thinker. Why the hell did I have to open my big mouth?
"What kind of junkie pus are you trying to feed us, Alex?" Sam gets on my case, 'cause she's still sore about Merlin cuttin' into her.
"N -- nothing. I'm just stupid I guess." I wish they would leave me be, but Merlin leans towards me with his red scar all puffed out.
"Tell us about the Magic Man, Alex." He talks real sweet and makes me nervous all over.
"Lady says he, uh, he can do magic stuff." They're all staring at me. "I mean, he takes care of poor folk and -- " Merlin's scar is getting redder and redder. "She says so -- lots of 'em seen it, late at night." I'm surprised, because Harry comes to my rescue and saves me from getting my ass kicked.
"Ass for brains has it all screwed up as usual, but if you would allow me to interpret you'll see he ain't junkieshitting." Harry makes a big show of fixin' his chair just right before he begins. "This guy showed up a couple of weeks back. No one knew him from the next psychotic pus head, but he hides out on the K level like he was born there or something. He's got some kind of gizmo that he brings out at night. Like this dung head was saying, the piss-poor sods from all over K crawl over to Block Nine to get food and medicine -- at least that's what they say they got."
"What's the machine look like?" Merlin's eyes are like slits. I shiver just looking at him.
"They didn't say much that made sense. Old man told me the Magic Man puts dead cats and rats and stuff in there and it comes out like bread. He showed me some."
Merlin whirls around and starts pacing up and down, kicking the trash all over the place. The scar seems like it's crawling all over his face and might jump right off. Finally he comes back to the table. "We're gonna get it," he says real cool.
"What is it?" Roge asks.
"What you need to know for, muscle head?" But he goes on anyway. "It's a food distiller. High-tech shit they was working on in the military when I -- " He stops suddenly and his eyes turn mean. "Hell, I ain't gonna sit here all night explaining to a couple of faggot twins. Go get some beauty sleep for your fat asses, 'cause we got work to do -- tonight."
Roge and me leave the Anarchs' den and just walk around for a while. We go to our favorite hangout down by the busted water main. When we was kids it tore open between H and I levels and filled up somebody's basement before it stopped. No one never saw so much water . It ain't near as high now. We like to throw scraps in and watch 'em sink through the green gunk on top.
I ask Roge what he thinks about the Magic Man. He says he's never seen no magic before that wasn't faked somehow. "But what's the difference?" he says, and I just know he's right. Roge sees things straight. We sit for a while, and then I speak up again. What about them poor folks? I ask. They can't hardly get enough to eat down there on level K, and we're gonna take away the food whatchamacallit. It sort of bothers me down in my gut. Merlin always said I was a softie. Roge don't say much for a while. "It ain't right to steal from poor folks," he finally says. He don't like it neither. "Most everyone's poor sometime or other and no one likes it any better'n the next guy."
We sit for a while longer, throwing junk into the slimy water. Sometimes bubbles come up from where the trash sank. I can't hardly describe it, but the way them bubbles rise up so happy like and then get all weighed down by the mush and burst. It makes me sad sometimes. I guess Merlin is right; I am a softie.
Me and Roge stand up after a long time. We walk back to our room and choke down a few food pills. They don't taste like much, but there ain't anything else around to eat. "What do you think Merlin's gonna do with the food gizmo?" I ask Roge. He don't know.
"Maybe he'll sell it, or maybe we'll have to catch cats and stuff so we can eat out of it." That's all Roge can think of. I can't figure nothing better than Roge.
We lie around on the floor and try to find something on the Network screen. They got lots of shows about how to live the right way, so you don't get hauled off to the freezer. Seems like there are more of them now then there used to be. It don't do no good, though, 'cause just as many people get froze as before. I wonder if them folks on A level watch these shows. Roge says the uppers don't go to the freezer, so they don't gotta learn to live right. He's probably seein' it straight like usual.
When it says it's time for lights-out on the Network, we go back to the Anarch's den. The hallways are only half lit. We have to walk real quiet so no one don't jump out and mug us. Most times, mugs don't go after big guys like us out of respect, but this is I level, where you can't trust no one.
We get to the den all right. The other Anarchs are there except Sam, but she comes in after us.
"Break the shock bars out, you muscle heads, and stop slouchin' around like a bunch of freezer burns." We do what Merlin tells us. Roge kisses his stick and slaps it against his leg.
"Ole Stinger," he says. I use to call mine Tickle, but it busted. Harry says I always bust things since I'm so dumb, but I always took care of Tickle. Anyway, now I got an old one that ain't so good anymore.
"Dammit, who's got my glow hat?" Sam growls. She looks all around and then at me. "You got my hat again?" I shake my head, but she comes over and looks at mine. "Alex, what kind of pus you got for brains? It don't even fit on your big greaseball head. You got mine."
Roge cracks a big smile. "I think she likes ya, Alex." I just spit on the floor and go find my glow hat. I can't never get them damn hats straight.
"We're going soon as you fag twins get your butts off the burner." Merlin sounds real edgy tonight. We grab our stuff and head for the rail shaft. The lifts don't work at night and you got to have a special pass for each level anyway.
The shaft ain't got no lightin' so we switch our glow hats on. Them junkies got a shop a little ways in, but they don't give us no hassle tonight. We just walk on by till we get to the duct. The duct is this big hole in the floor with a ladder stickin' out. We climb down. Hal goes first, since he's so big, to scare any mugs away.
While I climb down, this question keeps saying itself in my head until I finally can't hold it in and ask it out loud. "How we gonna get that food whatchamathinger back up to the den? Maybe it's real big."
"How do we always get our loot back up?" Harry says right below me. "You muscle heads lug it back up. We got ropes and all the other shit you big bastards need. Just leave the thinks to us and everything will be slick as junkiepiss." I look down and step on his fingers. He cusses at me until Merlin tells him to shut up.
It's a long climb down to K. We have to take a couple side tunnels and I'm glad Merlin's with us, 'cause I'd get lost in the dark like this. Finally Hal stops up ahead and says we got down to K all right. There ain't nobody around that I can see. That's good, 'cause some of 'em down here've got that rash from the fumigation. You can catch it from 'em if you ain't lucky.
Merlin says we're in Block Two. That means we got to walk all the way to Nine, so we get moving. Some of the hallways down here ain't even lit at all. My ma told me once about how this used to be A level. There weren't no others above it. I figure that means the uppers used to live down here. That must have been a long time ago. It's mostly gutted now.
Finally we get to Nine and start lookin' around for the Magic Man. It doesn't take long before we see a crowd of people ahead in one of them empty lots. We sneak up in the dark hallway with our glow hats turned off. I can see the food gizmo in the middle of the room. People are lined up beside it. Some of 'em have dead cats and sacks of trash just like Harry said.
The Magic Man is standing there puttin' stuff in one side and handin' out white chunks from the other. He ain't very tall or tough lookin' and he don't have no weapon that I can see. He just looks like the rest or them poor folks: sort of stooped over and dressed in scraps of insulation that got ripped off the walls a long time ago.
Merlin pushes us forward and yells, "Don't nobody move and you won't get hurt." We all run in shouting and waving our shock bars like we're crazy. I want to stop and think, but there ain't no time. Maybe if I wasn't so dumb, I could figure things faster, but there just ain't enough time. The poor folks all freeze and crouch on the ground like they probably done a hundred times before. The Magic Man, he never even looks at us. He just keeps putting dead cats and garbage into his food gizmo.
Hall gets there first and his bar just nicks the Magic Man when he swings it around. The little Man springs back from the shock. I see his face then, except it's not a man it's a woman. She's got this real sad look when she sees into my eyes, like she wants to cry, but she doesn't. I'm moving forward real slow but fast at the same time and I know I can't stop.
She's real quick, which surprises me. One second she is standing there lookin in my eyes; the next moment she's jumped up and into the food gizmo where all the dead cats went. I holler real loud and reach for her, but she's gone.
Merlin yells at us to bring the gizmo to him, but I don't care if he gets so mad he smiles till his face splits in two. I just stand there and say real calm like, "What we gonna do, Roge?"
He looks around at all them poor people and lowers Stinger. "We gotta feed that Magic Man out to all these piss poor folks," he says. I knew Roge would see things straight like he always done. It's just what she would've wanted.
And so that's what we done.
D.C. Bradley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore physics major at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He spends his time playing with neural nets and cruising the Internet. He looks forward to spending time with his family in Wisconsin. (Bio last updated in 1993.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 D.C. Bradley.