Willm darted around the corner, the crunching sound of dry scrub and gravel from this his shoes dampened by the building's white-washed wall. He built up some speed and made a running jump at the tall wooden fence next to the building, flinging himself up and over it. This was a game he would play when he was little, navigating through town by unusual paths as quickly as he could. He didn't want to be seen coming from Millr's. He didn't necessarily think anybody was following him, who would really. But it was fun, he could move across obstacles faster than he ever had, he was bigger and stronger, the patterns he'd performed a thousand times came naturally. Up, over, under, across. It made him feel alive.
He emerged, sweating, onto the street near the center of town. It was almost noon and the sun was hot. Weeds coming up through the cracks in the pavement carpeted the lesser traveled areas in lush green. A few trees had grown up through the rusty skeletons of dumped, broken cars. Since the surrender they weren't allowed to build any new machines so year by year there were more that couldn't be repaired. Always more car husks.
He felt the slight weight of the blank ReeLs in his bag. He would deliver them today, after he had lunch. He walked towards the diner, he walked down main street because there was no traffic. There was rarely traffic anywhere. Sometimes trucks. Although in the distance he saw a bicycle. Was that Jynes? Looked it. Men withered in the noon day sun, old Jynes was still hale and hearty though. Some curmudgeonly secret of longevity.
The door of the diner clanged loudly behind Willm. He went to the counter and sat down. The owner, a gruff middle-aged woman with tattoos covering both arms, gave him a customary, muted greeting then asked what he wanted.
"Got any ham yet?" he asked.
"No, no ham. Chicken. Just chicken," she said.
"It was pigeon last time," he said.
Muscle can eat muscle. The second Shrub law.
"OK," he said. He was ravenous. Pigeon was fine.
As he ate he kept the strap of the bag across his arm, protecting the blanks. Of course nobody knew what was in his bag, or that Willm even dealt in ReeLs, but if he was careless, he thought, he could fuck up a nice business. Like Millr kept telling, once they were gone, they were gone for good. He ate his sandwich bite by bite, it wasn't great, it was tough and had an aftertaste. French fries though, he savored them. Even with the Shrubs there was still plenty they could grow, although not enough for all the animals they used to keep and slaughter.
You must never eat from our fields. The first Shrub law.
He finished up, clearing the plate of every crumb and believing he could eat another sandwich. He paid. He was making decent money these days, he'd become used to the expense of the diner. Not like growing up, things were harder then. As he left the diner he looked over his shoulder. Who was there when he arrived and who was there when he left? The same cast of characters from town. He liked to keep track of these things. He liked to keep an eye out for change.
Being caught with blank ReeLs would be a mark against him. It was illegal to alter the slabs in any way. Only official provisional government programs could be put on them. You were supposed to bring them back to the local programming office where the new content could be imprinted. But of course there was the black market. It was too large for the government to battle, and most of the people in those offices watched illegal ReeLs off hours anyway.
He walked around the side of the diner to the back, past the garage, through the vacant lot, past the ancient gnarled tree. He started down the dirt road, fields on both sides of him. That's the way the Shrubs usually did it, cluster the undesignated fields around towns. Deep in though, far in, where the real industrial farming used to be, it was all worked by the Shrubs for themselves, for whatever they wanted to grow.
At the place where the fence looked collapsed, maybe from a car accident, Willm cut off the road and went into the field, jogging down off the shoulder, momentarily kicking up dry dirt behind himself. Even if there was traffic, they wouldn't see him. He was in a little ways and he could see the house from here. It was a brick house with wood trim once white, now rotting and abandoned. Some of the windows were intact, some weren't. He didn't know anything about who used to live there, he bet it was already abandoned before Surrender.
He avoided the front, with the leaning, cracked door and went around to the back. Wisps of torn screening dangled like flaps of skin on a sagging porch that must've once contained the usual summer activities. The porch was missing its door, and the house door was hanging open on one hinge. Willm wondered how many animals must come through the place. Maybe people did too, like himself, but they didn't stay. There was no shortage of housing. The green-skins said everybody was better off under the Shrubs, he wondered if that was true.
Willm walked through the hall to the front stairs. He heard a voice from the second floor. "I'm up here." It was Thmpsun, he was the blanks dealer.
Willm went to the top of the stairs, avoiding several treacherous gaps and saw Thmpsun in a large room to his left, the copious dust illuminated by the sun.
"Probably used to be pretty nice here. Big house," Thmpsun said.
You had to be a slightly weird to deal in blanks, Willm thought. Thmpsun dressed the same way people used to dress, his suit though had deteriorated over time, becoming a haunted kind of shabby. There was an uneasy ghostliness about him. Willm wondered if this is what Thmpsun was wearing on the day of surrender—time had stopped in his head, he was still a younger man.
"I used to do real estate," Thmpsun said.
"Yeah, you told me that before," Willm said.
"But you have to keep on top of new opportunities," Thmpsun added.
"How many blanks do you have for me today?" Thmpsun asked.
"Two," Willm said.
"That's all?" Thmpsun sighed. "Seems like there are less in the supply these days."
"Maybe you should go back into real estate," Willm said.
Thmpsun ignored the comment, it had never been said. Willm took the two slabs out of his bag as Thmpsun futilely tried to get dirt off the lapel of his jacket.
"Thank you," Thmpsun said, taking the blanks from Willm and putting them into a large, fat, worn leather satchel. "I can give you one for both this time," he said.
"But aren't there less? You just said there are less now," Willm said.
"Ebb and flow. There are probably more ReeLs in production right now. One for both this time, more next time."
Willm frowned tightly, letting the moment of uncomfortable silence linger as evidence of his displeasure.
"Alright," Willm said.
When the exchange was complete Willm walked out into the weedy, overgrown back yard, past remnants of a metal swing set, a collapsed shed, back through the fields. Next week he would pick up new ReeLs from production, the good ones, the crazy ones.