HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD
by THOMAS WOOD
ehicles strangled the highway ahead. Russell gripped the steering wheel and his calf pulsed as his foot hovered above the brake. The stench of rubber and asphalt and exhaust seeped through the windows as his car shuddered with every stop and start. His legs ached and his shirt stuck to his back, but he was patient despite the heat. No matter the traffic, he had somewhere to be.
It was nearly the first of the month, and the killing day approached. This was an informal term. The Front referred to it as alleviation. As if it made what they did easier. Even necessary. And The Front’s fist was mighty.
Russell drove past apartment buildings that stretched beyond the smog and the clouds. Concrete and steel and glass that stabbed at the sky. Hundreds of floors, filled to capacity. Choked with bodies.
The postcard was on the passenger seat. The symbol for The Front prominently displayed on one side, all black with the blood-red lines stretched from each corner. On the back of the card, one sentence printed opposite his name and address: Please send one member to the Alleviation Center no later than May 1.
The postcard (and subsequent alleviation) was a tool for The Front to manage the population. A system of checks and balances in a world where sickness and disease were no longer threats. Where death was no longer natural, or guaranteed.
This world where a man, untouched by The Front’s probing claws, could live forever.
The card was addressed with his name because he was listed as the head of household. Russell Wilmot. He hadn’t shown his wife, Anna, as he’d retrieved the mail before she returned home and kept the postcard to himself. She didn’t need to know. Not yet. It would only make things more difficult.
He’d only had the postcard a little over a week as it was, and The Front gave merely two weeks’ notice. They didn’t want people plotting and scheming.
He drove beneath traffic signs and over bridges. One borough connected with another, homes and apartments and condos lining every roadway. The countryside vanished long ago. Now, everyone lived together in one, massive city.
The sky was tinged gray from exhaust. A haze hung in the air, wrapped around skyscrapers that were packed with crying babies and elderly widows. The people that lived high enough couldn’t see the streets anymore. Just a gray fog.
Anna was home, in the fifty-second floor apartment. Two bedrooms for six people. They couldn’t afford another bedroom. Even if they could, there were none for sale. There was nowhere left to go.
Perhaps she would be making lunch for the children. Processed food, manufactured in vast warehouses. Nothing was natural anymore. Nothing real survived beneath the heavy boot of humanity.
He passed signs and storefronts and concrete. Towering shadows that stretched from city to city. The symbol for The Front displayed on billboards and office buildings. Black bumper stickers with red slashes. Banners hanging from balconies and covered windows. Anything people thought might work to hold them off. Make them send their little postcard to some other apartment or condo or shelter or home.
Anna hadn’t asked where he was going. She barely looked up from the discussion with her sister. The sister who also happened to live with them and their three children. The sister to whom she confided everything in whispers and glances. The sister who moved in after her own husband was alleviated.
And now that she was there, Anna had someone to talk to. Someone other than the children.
Vehicles clogged the roads, horns and engines and grinding brakes and thumping bass polluting the air. So many cars. So many trucks and vans and motorbikes and buses. So many people, shuffling from one place to the next. Suffocating the earth.
They’d found love once, he and Anna. But that was many years ago. Before the smog and congestion. Before the sweltering heat. Before the sea of people strangled them of everything decent. Now they held the walls of their tiny apartment together for the children. They would do anything for the children.
Russell tapped the wheel; old, worn leather sticky beneath his fingers. He breathed through his mouth. Even with the windows closed, every breath was heavy with exhaust and dust and sweat. Oxygen that was pumped through machines and vehicles, wiped off the windows of buildings, and scraped black off congested streets. Recycled.
Air that had been filtered through billions of lungs. Strong lungs despite the pollution. The Front saw to that.
He drove through tunnels and beneath skywalks, and wondered how many others were driving with the same postcard in glove compartments or shoved between seats. Men with heavy heads and full hearts. Fathers sitting tall, clutching The Front’s postcard. The postcard with the black and red. The postcard with the one sentence that may as well have been a sharpened blade or a fitted noose.
One of Russell’s coworkers received a postcard two years prior. Stephen was adamant that he wasn’t going to go. Said he wasn’t going to submit. He had two children and a wife. The Front came on the second day of the month, and took them all. Each was alleviated. They showed this on the news later.
Most people knew not to fight. Most understood. Either volunteer one or the entire family would be taken.
To control the population. To ease the overcrowding.
These scientists and doctors and politicians. These powerful men, choosing those that would die, rationalizing every terrible decision. Taking from the world that they once purported to have saved.
As he drove toward the Center, his children were home, in the bedroom they shared. The bedroom that was their playground. Their backyard. Their park. Condos had gone up where grass fields used to flourish, and apartment buildings crushed parks and playgrounds beneath their foundations. In the cities, they had built up before building out. Still, it hadn’t taken long until the steel could stretch no higher.
The glossed black postcard was smudged with his fingerprints. He’d stared at it for hours, flipping it over, reading the letters, and then flipping it back. Making sure the address was correct. Making certain the carrier hadn’t delivered it by mistake. He’d opened the balcony window and considered tossing it into the smog, letting it float down to the traffic below. As though it never existed.
But, the card did exist, and someone needed to be sacrificed. Someone had to be alleviated. And he wouldn’t let them have his children.
He pulled off the highway and turned down crowded streets, brake lights dull against the gray afternoon. His stomach turned and he wiped the sweat that trickled down his forehead, though he didn’t dare crack the windows.
The closest Alleviation Center had originally been built outside of the city, away from frightened eyes. It stood in a vast field, removed from main roads and busy intersections, and it was some far off beast until the city grew up around it. Now, it was just another building, just another concrete structure among the rest. A death warehouse between apartments and homes.
Early on, The Front began with the elderly. Alleviating only the oldest in any one area. They sold it as a necessity, like weeding a garden. Quickly, they came to the realization that it wasn’t enough. That many more needed to be removed. So, they began the lottery. The “random” drawings. This concept wasn’t sold to the people; this news was delivered. And there was no turning away from it.
If people would no longer die on their own, The Front was up to the task.
He wound through congested streets that used to be one-lane country roads. There was a garage beneath the Center, and he pulled the car inside, parking as close as possible. The spaces were almost full.
He wondered for a spare moment what they did with the vehicles after.
Russell locked his car and walked beneath spotlights toward the closest doorway, his shoes echoing in the dark space of the garage. Keys jingling in one hand, the postcard clutched in the other. The postcard that required a member of his family to die.
He wouldn’t stomach the killing of a child. Not his child. So, he would fulfill his duty. As father, as protector, as head of household. He would make the profound decisions.
Red signs with white lettering littered the walls, and he walked down long hallways toward the main building. An elevator carried him up three levels and deposited him in a lobby. A waiting room. A security guard with an iron chin patted him down as he stepped from the elevator. The black flag with the red slashes worn across the guard’s heart.
Russell forced his feet to move across the bright lobby, past men and women sitting in chairs, reading magazines. Books and newspapers were spread across long tables, and soothing music leaked from speakers in the ceiling. The air was crisp, and pure. He breathed deep through his nose.
His muscles were relaxed, and his head swam as he stared at the others that waited their turns. They were peaceful, flipping through pages, some dozing off. A few giggled at nothing as they gazed wide-eyed at the overhead lights.
These people had been drugged. Placated. The air here was different. This, he assumed, would make it easier to die.
He fought off the fog and approached the bubble in the middle of the room. It was tempered glass, and workers milled about inside the giant fish tank; fluid and graceful. A young woman rolled her chair close.
“Postcard and identification, please,” she said with a smile, speaking through a metal box in the glass. A tiny black flag displayed on her chest. She was quite pleasant considering her position. He presumed she never worried about receiving one of the cards in her mailbox.
Her face wobbled and stretched and her smile grew wide. Her teeth were great pillars propping up the rest of her face. Fantastic marble columns grew from bottom lip to top. He blinked and her face snapped back, like a rubber band pulled too far. He smiled. It was a wonderful trick.
Russell moved through quicksand, his hands and lips heavy. He placed the card and his identification in the drawer. It snapped closed from the other side of the glass, and he stifled a giggle that crawled up his throat.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Wilmot.” She smiled again, her teeth bright and white and shining beneath the lights. Teeth so massive that he wondered how they fit in her mouth.
He nodded politely as the earth swirled, like a plug pulled at the bottom of the ocean.
“Why don’t you have a seat, and someone will be to see you in just a few moments.” The funhouse smile. Fat, white, glaring teeth. Carved in to her face. She was beautiful and grotesque. He wanted to tap-tap-tap on those teeth with an icepick. He wanted to see how many pieces he could make.
The bubble pushed forward. He braced himself against the countertop and licked dry lips.
“Actually, it’s not going to be me,” he said, and the entire world seemed to shift. “Her name is Anna Wilmot, and she can be found at the address listed on that card.” He pressed a finger against the glass.
Heavy is the head.
“Oh,” she said, the white smile wiped from her face. For a moment she looked old and haggard. She looked like his wife. “I see.” She scribbled on the postcard and passed his identification through the drawer, slamming it closed.
“Thank you,” he said, his mouth opened in an exaggerated smile, peeled back over his gums. He wanted her to see his teeth. See his joy.
“I’ll pass this along. You may leave.” She didn’t look back to him.
Russell spun on his heels and swam through the lobby. He held his arms out and tiptoed down a red strip of carpet toward the security guard. Close to the elevator, he paused to look at the men and women waiting their turns to die. Cattle led to the slaughter.
He flashed the teeth-and-gum smile at the guard before stepping through the open doors of the elevator. Heading back to his car. Heading in to the traffic. In to the smog and sweat and concrete of an overcrowded world.
A polluted world in which he planned to live a very long time.
Thomas Wood writes whenever he can find a free minute and lives with his wife and son in Madison, Wisconsin. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Abomination Magazine, Bete Noire Magazine, Sanitarium, and Stupefying Stories. Connect with him at www.facebook.com/ThomasWoodAuthor.
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