Perdido beach looked like a warzone that had suffered the wrath of Zeus himself. It was hard to believe that this was a part of middle class America. Smoke and ash rose with the sun over the charred remains of homes that occasionally creaked and snapped. The air carried that thick smoky smell as well as a trace of the gasoline the arsonists had used to light the fires. Survivors scrounging around for anything valuable or useful were stained black like a population of chimney sweeps from ‘Oliver Twist’.
Rodger had promised himself to read that book to Justin a while ago. However Justin had preferred other children’s books like ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ over the classic that was, albeit, a bit wordy sometimes. Now Justin was standing over the remains of his home, clutching half of his burnt blankie. Scorched scraps from photo albums fluttered around his feet.
“Daddy is going to be so mad when he gets back,” he said feebly, sitting on the broken remains of his bed. Rodger sat down with him and rubbed his back.
“Awe, come on little dude,” he said. “Your Dad isn’t going to be mad. It was the fault of the bloody Human Crew, not yours. I’ll tell him that myself, okay?”
Justin didn’t look pleased or relieved. Rodger sighed and picked up a singed corner of one of his paintings. The loss of his art didn’t crush him as much as others might have expected. They were just doodles, not masterpieces. He could make something similar and no one else would care. What value was art in the FAYZ? Most kids were depraved, thirsty and hungry. What could they do with a painting in world filled with constant fear and terror?
Even back in the old days where children were still children and people could take the time to appreciate things, Rodger’s parents didn’t really care for his art. It was highly unlikely he would get an actual job in a field that was so highly competitive and truth be told, he wasn’t that good. It seemed like a waste of time towards a career that was potentially nothing compared to the job demand in sectors involving energy, food and other resources humans needed to survive.
Within the FAYZ Rodger hadn’t found his raison d’être either. Whilst Albert had become the business manager, Dahra had become the doctor and even Howard found his place as a drug dealer (admittedly not a very inspiring example), Rodger had simply been working the fields with all the other kids, most of them too young to have ambition to be somebody else. Rodger felt that he could do more but he didn’t know what. He wasn’t particularly smart, innovative or strong.
“I’m going to start wetting the bed again,” Justin cried. Rodger shook himself out of his musings.
“It’s okay Justin. We’ll find a new home and you’ll get used to that bed. Then you won’t wet the bed anymore.”
He didn’t look convinced.
“You know, I’ve been close to wetting myself two times yesterday.” Justin looked at him in disbelief.
“The second time was when Mary… you know.” It was too soon to talk about. The memory bought a lump to his throat. Rodger swallowed.
“The first time was when our house was on fire. I thought I was going to die. But you know what? You saved me. You got me out of that burning building alive. You didn’t have super strength or super speed or anything. No one would have blamed you if you left. But you stayed and got me out. That trumps wetting the bed any day.”
Justin sat a little straighter and wiped his tears. In the corner of his eye Rodger spied a spark of gold amongst the ash. He reached for it and dusted it off. It was too much to hope that it would be a berto – other more opportunistic kids had probably looted the place of the essentials before they got back. It was just a bottle cap, most likely from one of Orc’s beers. Still, it was gold and it was shiny. Why did humans value gold in the ancient days anyway? It was neither food nor shelter and it was stuck in rock. But even then humans still recognised and valued beauty.
He found a rusty nail and, with great difficulty and risk of tetanus, punched a hole in the bottle cap. Then he threaded a bit of shoelace through it and kneeled on the ash in front of Justin.
“To Justin,” he declared grandly. “For your valiant act of bravery in a time of peril, I present to you, a medal of the highest honour – the Heart of Gold.”
Justins head rose to accept the shoddy bottle cap necklace and he fingered the bottle cap pendant with awe. Rodger smiled. Even if he didn’t make a huge difference in the FAYZ at least he made a difference to one person.
“Come on, let’s get some food.”
They walked into the centre square where Albert had continued organising his cookout. There were several crying preschoolers who weren’t as lucky as Justin to have someone looking after them. Rodger couldn’t imagine taking care of all of them; no wonder Mary had gone mad. None of the other older kids seemed to know what to do about them either; they were too unwilling or too nervous to take responsibility. Brother John sat to one side with tears running down his face, muttering, “She promised she wouldn’t leave me, she promised…”
Rodger negotiated a meagre meal of charred shrimp and bony scant fish from one of Albert’s workers and they quietly sat on a low wall to eat in peace. There he got a first class view of Edilio, the sexy Honduran man, painting over some of the hate graffiti done by the Human Crew. Rodger frowned. Was it just him or did that guy seem to be doing everything around here? Sam might have been credited as leader of the FAYZ but it was Edilio he saw burying the bodies, training the soldiers, getting children to pick crops. That guy seemed to be responsible for everything.
Without realising it Rodger’s feet had taken him behind Edilio. He said, “Would you like a hand with that?”
Edilio jerked and turned around in slightly open-mouthed surprise. Then he closed his mouth and gave Rodger a bucket of paint with a brush. “Thanks. You are the first person who has ever offered to help me around here.”
Rodger shrugged. “I’m the Artful Rodger; I like painting. I can take over this job for you if you like.”
Edilio looked hesitant about relinquishing his duty. Slowly he put down his brush. Rodger laughed. “You know, you don’t have to carry the entire weight of the FAYZ on your shoulders alone.”
Edilio smiled ruefully and Rodger tried his damnedest to fight the blush that was creeping into his cheeks. “You know, this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me in the FAYZ.”
Rodger laughed again, a little too shrilly in his own opinion. “That’s a bit sad, don’t you think?”
Edilio gave a dark chuckle and shrugged as he straightened up. “I supposed but that’s the FAYZ for you. I’ll see if I can get Albert to pay you for that. Thanks Rodger.”
He patted him on the shoulder and walked away. Rodger tried not to get too excited by the physical contact – after all, what were the chances that he was also gay? His best friend Paula used to always joke they had the opposite problems; she would be attracted to gay men whilst he would be attracted to the straight ones. Oh well. You couldn’t always control your heart.
Justin had finished his meal and was wondering what he could do now. Rodger suggested he could help him paint if he wanted to. As they slowly started and stopped down the street Justin kept pointing at messily scrawled words and asking, “What ‘s that word?”
Rodger debated whether to tell him. This most definitely wasn’t the ideal way to teach kids how to read. Still, if the world ever returned to normal Justin would have to know how to read.
“It says Moof,” he said at last. “M–O–O–F. But I don’t ever want to hear you using that word Justin. It’s a very bad word.”
He sounded like his father. Justin frowned. “What does it mean?”
Until recently Justin had spent most of the FAYZ in the day care centre. There he had remained innocent as society degraded and devolved around him.
“It’s an abbreviation for ‘mutant freak’. It’s a mean word for those with the special powers.”
Justin scowled. “I wish I had special powers. Then I wouldn’t be so scared anymore.”
Rodger smiled wanly. “I bet the people who wrote this on the wall were scared too.”
As they painted down the street Rodger took to pointing at faded posters and signs before the FAYZ to teach Justin how to read. They were such innocent signs, such as ‘Special Offer: Cranberry sauce for $1.50! Limited time only!’ and ‘Suffering hair loss? Give Ashton Martin a call!’. Such first world problems.
Eventually they left the shopping district and ended up in a street of houses where there was nothing gimmicky or silly to distract them. The Human Crew had taken to targeting mutants where they lived and spraying it all over their houses. Rodger grew tired of painting over the word ‘moof’ over and over again. It reminded him of the word ‘poof’. Rodger had managed to remain discrete about his sexuality in high school but a fellow classmate, Rick Alderly, had not. Rick was undeniably camp and no matter what he did, jerks always called out, “Poof!” across the classroom to other sniggering classmates. One day Rick disappeared from school altogether. The rumours about it ranged from ‘moved school’ to ‘suicide’.
Rodger viciously slapped some paint on a fence. Why did people feel the need to write such shit on the wall and make people feel like shit? Couldn’t anyone write anything nice?
The idea seized Rodger. Why not write something nice on the wall for once?
“Hey Rodger wanna go see the sentencing?” a kid yelled, interrupting his thoughts. Rodger nodded and placed his brush back in the tin. Kids, baying for blood, were gathering at the centre square, throwing trash and other waste at the Human Crew. It was fortunate for them that they were away from the debris of the fire and that food, no matter how rotten and disgusting it was, was too precious to throw at this scum. They stood slightly terrified on the stage that was formerly a gazebo. Sam gestured for silence.
“Human Crew, you have been charged with arson, damaging property and manslaughter. How do you plead?”
“Caine made us do it!”
“We didn’t mean to kill anybody!”
“What, you thought lighting a bunch of fires wasn’t going to hurt anyone?” Sam snarled.
The pudgy toady called Turk threw himself at Albert’s feet. “Please don’t kill us! We’ll do anything!”
Albert actually paused to consider this offer. He was probably the only person in the FAYZ who had enough cold-hearted rationality to do this. “Anything?”
“Yes, yes!” Turk sobbed, clutching the hem of Albert’s slacks. “Anything!”
Albert raised his hands and the yelling and various projectiles stopped. “Slit trenches need to be dug and filled in so we don’t potentially spread disease. I propose we get the Human Crew to fulfil this job.”
Protests immediately flared up again.
“That’s too good for them!”
“They deserve death!”
“Let them burn, see how they like it!”
Albert raised his hands again and everyone stopped. No matter how angry they were, no one was going to risk pissing off the kid who supplied them with food. “If we don’t get these scumbags to fill in crap holes, one of you will.”
It somewhat abated the mood.
“All right, let them fill in crap, it’s all they’re worth.”
“The Crap Crew!”
Of course not all the members of the crowd were pleased. Some had lost friends and family to the fire and some had suffered the agony of being set on fire themselves. As the crowd dissipated to move on with their lives, or rather, rebuild what the Human Crew had destroyed, some jeered and spat at the Crew before leaving. Albert started to detail where slit trenches needed to be dug and filled in. It seemed that the Human Crew were to start immediately.
If there was ever a time to implement his harebrained scheme it would be now. Rodger found Justin showing off his Heart of Gold badge to a fellow preschooler. He asked him if he wouldn’t mind staying to try and help some of the other preschoolers out. Justin seemed to glow with pride.
Quickly, Rodger walked to the outskirts of Perdido Beach where the Human Crew was based. Their headquarters was adorned with HC logos and other witty slogans such as, “Kill the Moofs! Long live the Human Revolution!” and “Chuds out! Humans in!” Rodger jumped the dilapidated fence and landed in the weedy overgrown backyard. The place reeked of pot and Rodger suspected there was probably a vomit corner somewhere too. He found his prize immediately; a pile of spray cans that were tossed in a wheelbarrow waiting for him. He grabbed a backpack that was lying around began stuffing it. Even if he was caught, no one was going to object to him stealing from the Human Crew. Heck he had probably done Edilio a favour and prevented them from spreading more hate graffiti.
Once Rodger was well away from the Human Crew zone he paused to consider the landscape. The world was his canvas now. Back in the old days he would have never dared do something like this. But the rules had changed and just as society was relying on a twelve year old kid to supply them with food, Rodger figured they needed something motivational to keep their spirits alive. This was well worth the risk.
There was a bland cement wall overlooking the beach. It was quiet when he got there. Good. He didn’t want anyone watching whilst he fumbled over his masterpiece. The intimidating blank canvas stared down at him. What should he paint? Nothing too fancy – this was his first venture into graffiti art. Nothing too cheesy or overtly positive either in case people chose to view it with bitter irony. He opted for something simple. He sketched a quick draft with some chalk he always carried in his pocket and started.
Rodger had never held a spray can before so he didn’t have very good control over where the paint went. It either sprayed over areas larger than intended or bled and ran when it was too concentrated. It smelled quite strong too. He wished he had considered stencils. That was what the great Banksy did, right? Fortunately he was only on the yellow base coat and didn’t have to focus on the details yet. He experimented with a few angles and ways of spraying before building up a red gradient. He had just finished when someone shouted, “Hey! What are you doing?”
Rodger whipped around. It was the Human Crew with shovels, cutting across the beach to get to some of the other houses to dig and fill in the trenches. Rodger’s heart dropped. This was pretty much the worst situation he could be in right now. He suddenly wished the beach had been more crowded after all. Lance stooped forward to inspect his work in a snooty condescending manner.
“Hope,” he read. Then he laughed. “What hope is there in the FAYZ? What kind of gay shit is this? What do you think Zil?”
Zil Sperry, the so-called leader of their gang, looked startled by Lance’s question. Nevertheless, he followed Lance’s lead. “It’s pretty gay. Look at all those swirls and flowers! What next, a freakin’ rainbow?! You a poofter Rodger?”
Rodger should have been terrified. Throughout high school he had been scared of this happening to him and now it was happening during the FAYZ where kids dying or getting bashed up was regular news. But there was something about the way Zil looked at Lance before making his move. It was a look of discrete admiration and hope for approval.
Rodger knew that look. It was the way he looked at Edilio in the distance.
So he laughed. “Hypocrite,” he stated right to Zil’s face, giving him a nod towards Lance.
He was probably going to die. But at least he would die having one up on jerks he had been afraid of his entire life. Lance’s handsome face took on a disgusted snarl as he gripped his shovel tighter. “What are you suggesting, you little fairy?”
Gee, no wonder Zil idolised him; he really was the perfect asshole. They’d be a suiting pair. Just when Lance was taking a dangerous step towards Rodger –
BANG! A gunshot resounded from the distance. It was Edilio, holding his shotgun to the sky. Talk about a knight in shining armour!
“Next one is in the head if you idiots don’t go back and do some work,” Edilio snapped. The Human Crew backed off quickly. Lance and Zil gave Rodger one last glare. This probably wasn’t over.
Rodger rubbed the back of his neck nervously whilst they left and he stood there with Edilio. He didn’t ask for permission to paint this wall. What if Edilio asked him to paint over it? It was one thing for the Human Crew to criticise his work; if it was Edilio Rodger could just crawl into a hole and die.
“I know I wasn’t supposed to do this,” Rodger blurted out. “But I was just thinking with all the bad stuff going on – ”
Edilio raised his hand. “It’s beautiful.”
Then he broke out into the most genuine smile Rodger had seen him wear during the FAYZ. Rodger’s heart fluttered.
“This is one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done during the FAYZ. Although I’m not sure if I could get Albert to pay you for it.”
Rodger laughed. “I didn’t get paid for art before the FAYZ, why should I get paid now?”
Edilio nodded thoughtfully. “So the house you and Justin were staying in burned down. Have you found a new place to live yet?”
Rodger mentally kicked himself. That’s what he should have been focussing on today. Blast his impractical mind…
“Ah, well no.”
“I think there are some empty houses near the fire station that aren’t too damaged. I could help you and Justin move in there if you like…”