Imperial City

She’d set out in the city gloom, with nothing but a carryall that held a notebook, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a few packs of vending machine underwear.

The train clattered toward the tunnel past buildings vacant-eyed with orange sunset, under a louring purple sky that was fast fading into gray and black as the front moved in.

She had settled herself into her coat, chin tucked into her turtleneck, watching her reflection rather than the passing scenery.

No one else would look at her twice as either pretty or ugly. Usually she liked it that way, but tonight, on her own into the strange country of the past, she would not have minded there being someone with her. Even a dog, although, given the opportunities in the world of the city, it would have to have been a cat and a cat was no good for travelling.

The train ran through what seemed an endless wasteland of abandoned buildings, all shattered windows and steel doors crumpled or jammed open. It rolled over a series of bridges crossing turbid water and glistening mudflats, and on into the endless night of underground.

Watching her tired reflection, she waited. The car had emptied out what sparse population it had had, and she was alone except for two women lost in their thoughts although they sat side by side, and one man, chin on chest, who seemed alone, but probably had sought the jacked-in comfort of the dreamlands.

She could have slept, too, except that she was hungry, having had to hurry from work to catch this train. She hoped there’d be something at journey’s end, even if it were only from a vending machine.

Tilting her phone to the light, she checked the time, slid it deep into her pocket. Another hour. By the time she would arrive it would already be full dark, and she had never been familiar with the town as it now was. She worried herself into a half-doze and had to scramble to get off to make her connection.

Left on the platform as the local clattered away, she took her bearings, unwilling to take out her phone, uncertain it would work. There wasn’t a cab, and the station itself, although still lit, was closed. That meant she would be walking.

The buildings shouldered against one another, leaned over the sidewalk, so she walked down the middle of the street, avoiding the cars that lined the curb like the husks of dead beetles.

In no particular hurry, a police car rolled across an intersection ahead of her. Once the rumble of its engine died, she sped up, ignoring tired feet. First tired after a day in heels, and now tired from walking, for all her shoes were so sensible as to be utterly unfashionable.

Half a block further on and her hope was fulfilled: a diner was open. In front the police car was half up on the sidewalk. The cop had stopped for coffee.

Inside, she reached for the plastic menu stuck between the sugar canister and the napkin caddy.

“Don’t bother,” said the counterman. “This time of night all we do is burgers, fries and coffee. Doughnuts. Pie, if we had any, which we don’t.”

She hadn’t eaten meat in years.

“Give her one of my burgers,” said the cop, shaking powdered sugar from his fingers, “and start another one for me. Double fries.” He bit another doughnut and licked the ooze of red jam.

The plate thumped in front of here. A cup rattled in a saucer as coffee poured in. “Thank you,” she said to her hands, rather than anybody in particular.

The cop watched the pale meat patty sizzle in the grease. “You’re off the train,” he said.

She sighed inwardly. His kindness about the burger had paid for some information, pinned her in place for questioning. “Yes,” she said, ignoring the whispers of memory that said, “Lice and po-lice.” That had been a hot summer day filled with chanting voices; an electric atmosphere so tense you could taste the sweat, hate, and fear.

She set her cup straight on its saucer and hoped nothing showed on her face. Exhaustion saved her. She yawned and blinked, and almost didn’t get a polite palm over her mouth in time.

Then the burger slid in front of her. She took it in both hands, saliva flooding her mouth. I had forgotten, she thought, tasting fat, salt, and sweet beef blood.

After the first bite, she ate slowly, forcing herself to put the burger down, dip a fry in catsup, pick it up, take another bite—

“More coffee,” said the counterman. “It’s a fresh pot.”

“No,” she said, dipping a fry. “No thank you. I’ll need to sleep.”

“You don’t have far to go,” said the cop.

“No,” she said, and filled her mouth with burger, tomato, and the off flavor of half-cooked lettuce.

Imperial City is scheduled for winter 2016.

Copyright 2016 Catherine Mintz. All rights reserved.

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