2055, November 5th
Collapse + 6 years
“Contraband food supports contraband people”
The words covered most of the poster using a no-nonsense, stencil font like the kind used in military dossiers. In smaller words below, it said, “Contraband food comes from victims. Don’t fund slavers and raiders. Report any unauthorized food dealers to the authorities.” Beneath that, the rest of the poster showed a trichrome depiction of cartoon men with guns forcing others to enter a machine. From the other end, food emerged.
Beside that poster was another warning of metal content and contaminants in unsanctioned food products. After that, the posters repeated along the brick wall in differing local languages.
That’s where Naema found her brother. He was two blocks into a seven block line of people waiting their turn for the relief center. From here, the center wasn’t even in view.
Naema approached him. He was too busy scraping the earth with a stick to notice her until she was right before him.
“That is it?” she asked. “The line is not moving any faster?”
Oni shrugged. He kept scratching the earth. “It moved.”
Naema eyed a shriveled man sitting before Oni in the line. “You let anyone cut you?”
Oni shook his head.
Naema didn’t recall seeing the man. When she gave up her shift to Oni two hours ago, an old woman had been ahead of her whom she had to practically shove forward whenever the line moved in order to keep someone from taking advantage of the gap, but this man might have been before them. That woman had been in bad shape. The collectors probably got her. They came by every few hours and carted off anyone who wasn’t alive enough to respond to their questions. At least it kept the bodies off the street.
“My turn now,” said Naema. “You go home.”
“No you’re not. Go home to Mama. She needs you.”
“You go home to Mama. I want to wait more.”
“Why? Come on. Get up. You want to wait? Go get water. We’re almost out.”
Oni sighed and stood. “Fine, fine.” He handed Naema the family’s three food stamps—one each for her, Oni, and Mama. Oni ran off. Naema took his place and leaned against the wall. The man behind her in line watched Oni go, then turned to eyeball Naema. She stared him down, daring him to say anything about her taking someone’s place. He didn’t.
Taking turns in line wasn’t supposed to be allowed, but everybody did it. Families cycled through their members. Friends held places for friends. No one fought about it since the soldiers would just kick them out of line, but it built animosity. The war was over, but feelings were harder now than ever before.
And all of this, just for half a pound of synthetic cassava. The relief tent had seven assemblers dedicated to cassava paste. Each one took ten minutes to make a serving, which meant forty servings an hour in total, but then many people carried as many as half a dozen stamps for their families, the most any one person was allowed to redeem at once.
The wait was worst near the front. Naema could see the machines defecating paste into tubs at painstakingly slow rates. Some machines were broken, and some white men would be elbow deep inside those trying to fix them, if they bothered. And then there were the pounds of paste the peace officers carried off, supposedly going to those too sick or old to wait, but across the river, by the docks, the Jambai gang sold tubs for five naira apiece. They say they have their own assemblers, but those tubs looked a lot like the ones those officers carried off.
The line moved. Everyone shuffled forward. Naema rounded a corner, and the relief tent came into view. It was only a week old, but already its tarp was stained with dirt and mud, just like the peace officers’ fatigues. Their gray and white fabrics didn’t look so pure anymore.
On the first night the relief crew arrived, gangs lobbed handfuls of shit until shock troops dropped in from the sky like comets. Naema had heard the screaming from home, but no gunfire. Lakiran rifles whispered.
Over the next hour, the line crawled.
“Hey,” someone called from behind her. “Oslo.”
From the way the old man before Naema turned, he was Oslo.
A Nigerian with short curls of gray hair approached Oslo. He sidled up, hands in his pockets and a warm smile on his face. Oslo glanced around as though looking for the man this stranger was actually talking to. The newcomer slapped his arm over Oslo’s shoulder.
“Oslo. Thank you, my friend.”
“You have saved my place in line.”
Oslo glanced around. He averted his gaze from Naema. When he glanced at the peace officers patrolling the line, he had a change of heart.
“Um. Yes. Tonton. You are quite welcome. It is good to see you again. It has been too long.”
Tonton bellowed laughter. His smile stretched wide, showing yellow teeth. “Too long? We were standing in line together an hour ago.”
Naema knew what was happening. This Tonton had seen someone he knew, and he was bluffing his way in. Oslo either had to play along, or tell this man to get lost and risk starting a fight, which might get him pulled from the line.
Naema wanted to say something. If she were in line just for herself, she would, but Oni and Mama were counting on her. Even when Tonton pulled his hand from his pocket, revealing a full six food stamps, she said nothing. It only added ten minutes to her wait.
Someone prodded Naema from behind. She turned. An angry man was glaring at her. “Was he there?” He pointed to Tonton. “I never saw that man. Did you?”
“He wasn’t there. Get him out.”
Naema glanced from the angry man to Tonton, who was ignoring her.
“Get him out,” the man said again.
“You get him out.”
The man scowled, but said nothing more. A short while later Tonton raised his hand and signaled to a group of passing strangers. “Over here, mes amies.”
Three people meandered over. Each caught on to Tonton’s little deception. Each held multiple food stamps.
Tonton smiled broadly at his companions. “I thought you wouldn’t find me.”
Oslo made no remark as they filed into line in front of Naema.
This was too much. She tugged on Tonton’s shirt. He turned.
“No. Uh huh. You were not in line. None of you were.”
Tonton smiled. “You are mistaken. My friend Oslo here was holding our place. You have a leaky memory.”
“No,” said Naema. “Me and my brother have been waiting all day. We no see any of you.”
“What’s it matter?” Tonton’s smile had no humor. “You want to get us in trouble?” He glanced toward the peace officers, then leaned in. “Here. I’m a good man. See? Maybe you remember better?”
He held his hand between them so only she could see. A single food token was between his fingers. An extra half pound of cassava would go a long way, but something about this man made her resist. Maybe it was how casually he decided to cheat everyone else, or maybe it was that smile of his, as though he were smarter than everyone else for pulling it off.
She’d probably regret this later.
“No,” she shook her head. “You go wait in line like everyone else.”
His smile returned as he withdrew the token. “Okay, putain. More for me. You want to call the peace men, you do that. Maybe I tell the peace men you cut, no?”
He turned back to his friends, but Naema yanked him around by his shirt. “No. You go wait. All these people wait. You think your problems are worse?”
This time, Tonton ignored her. He and his friends laughed. Some glanced at her.
“Hey,” she said, raising her voice. “You don’t stay here. Go.”
A patrolling peace officer approached. “Is there a problem?”
Naema started to speak, but Tonton’s voice barreled over her.
“Yeah. There’s a problem. This woman is trying to cut in line. I told her to go to the end. Now she won’t leave me alone.”
“No. That is not what happened,” Naema said. “They cut in line. They are all pretending to know each other, but I know they were never here.”
Tonton shook his head. “No, sir. I’ve been here all day with my friends.” They all agreed.
The peace officer hardly cared. He looked from Tonton to Naema, then glanced to the man behind her. “What did you see?”
Eyes wide, the man shrugged. He wasn’t willing to stick his neck out.
The peace officer turned back to Naema and Tonton. “Okay then. Both of you out of line.”
“What?” said Tonton. “No. No, sir. I’ve been here all day.”
“No no, it’s okay,” said Naema. “We won’t argue anymore.”
“Out.” With gloved hands, the officer pulled them from line. “One of you cut. I don’t care who. You can both go back to the end of the line or wait until tomorrow. I don’t care.”
He resumed patrolling the line.
“Good work, salope.” Tonton shoved her. “I’ve got four kids. You, bitch, can’t keep your mouth shut.”
“Shut up,” said Naema. It had taken her and her brother four hours to get through the line. Mama might be home now preparing a kettle. Even if Naema got back in line, it would be after dark before she even got back to where she was.
She turned and walked away.
“Hey, salope,” called Tonton. “You ain’t got nothing to say for yourself?”
She ignored him. At least he got kicked out too, but what was the point? His friends got to stay. They would let him back in as soon as the peace officer moved on.
She turned off the main road and headed back home. The family had food saved up, and Naema could skip her portion.
Things were supposed to get better when the Lakirans took over. Everyone was supposed to get as much assembled food as they wanted; that’s what the soldiers said when they marched in. But it’s worse now. Food was scarce before the Lakirans zeroed in on Nigeria, but at least it was there. Someone might sell food from a hacked assembler in their basement, or Mama might get lucky, and a dealer would pick her up who could pay her in food cans.
But now? Nothing. The first thing the Lakirans did was shut down all trade out of the Port Harcourt. They arrested anyone they found with food other than their own. They made themselves the only food source, but they weren’t enough.
Naema turned down an alley toward her home. Like most alleys, it was home to many. There were shanties made of aluminum, and laundry lines stretched overhead. Litter covered most of the road.
Someone was running up behind her.
Naema turned. A PVC pipe cracked against her head. White stars burst across her vision. She collided against a nearby shanty. Aluminum plates rattled like thunder. She tried to push herself up by her hands, and the pipe struck her back. She collapsed against the shanty again.
“You get me out of line?” Tonton yelled. “You want trouble with me? You got it, bitch.”
Again and again, Tonton beat her. There was anger behind each blow. Everywhere her arms would protect, he would just aim elsewhere: her ribs, her skull, her legs. He spared nothing.
Throughout his yelling and beating, people passed the mouth of the alley, and Naema knew people were in the shanties. No one helped.
She curled into a fetal position and waited until he finished. Finally, he dropped the pipe and knelt beside to her. His hands roamed her clothes. When she realized what he was looking for, she lashed out and kicked, but her strength was gone.
He yanked the food tokens from her pockets, two fell and clattered. He turned to pick them up.
She couldn’t let him have them. Those tokens were for her family. If she could just save one…
She lunged, despite pain in her sides and blood streaming from her scalp. Her fingers hooked Tonton’s sandal. He stumbled away. Naema fumbled for a fallen token. Just one, and then she’d run.
As her fingers closed around the small plastic coin, Tonton’s foot collided with her face. She reeled. Blood streamed from her nose.
“Give me the coin, salope,” he yelled.
He attacked her again. Kick after kick, but she kept her hand clenched.
Then he stomped her fist against the ground. Something snapped. Wailing, she pulled her hand to her chest, but Tonton yanked it back. Squeezing her wrist, he pried the last token from her fingers.
“Don’t fuck with me again, okay?” He kicked her one final time, then left her laying in the alley.
Out on the street, everyone continued on their day.
Limping, Naema arrived home. Her ribs ached. She had numerous cuts and scrapes, and a gash on her forehead still bled. The worst was her thumb. The nail was loose. In time it would turn black and pop off, but what concerned her more was that her thumb wouldn’t bend, and it was swelling like a balloon.
Home was a blue tarp propped between a condominium wall and a dumpster. Before the bombing, they’d lived in a shack by the bay—one of many. It was a single room made of balsa wood planks. Naema and Oni had slept on one mattress on the floor, and their parents shared the only bed with their infant brother. It hadn’t been much, but it had been home. Between Mama and Papa’s work, they got by. Sometimes, as Naema lay beneath the tarp they lived under now, she’d think about that bayside shack—about Papa and their little brother who never got a name—and she’d grow nauseous with homesickness.
With her good hand, she pulled back the tarp flap and entered. Oni slept on a mess of sheets. Mama was perched over the portable glass kettle. It came with its own heating pad, which it snapped into. The glass was chipped, and it rattled in its hold, but it functioned.
Mama had not yet changed from work. Her tight lycra miniskirt and low cut tank top showed as much coffee skin as possible while still remaining flattering for her age, although the miniskirt made hunkering over the kettle an awkward affair.
She saw Naema’s wounds instantly.
“Naema.” She hurried over and clutched Naema’s shoulders. “What happen to you, girl?”
In the corner, Oni stirred. He stared at her, eyes wide.
Naema had known this was coming. As soon as she told Mama she was mugged, Mama would shower her with sympathy. It didn’t matter that she’d lost the tokens, just as long as she was all right. It wouldn’t be her fault, and that’s what she would hate, because it was. She’d lost their tokens. She got hurt. She did something stupid. And they were all going to suffer because of it.
Naema began to cry.
Mama guided her to a mattress. She fetched a first aid kit from under a pile of laundry. Oni had gotten it from a relief handout months ago. Mama had already traded away most of the supplies and drugs inside, but a few sanitary wipes remained. Mama dabbed Naema’s cuts while humming lullabies, more to herself than to Naema. Oni watched silently.
Once Mama finished, she held Naema and crooned until she calmed down.
“Now you tell me what happened.”
So Naema did, starting with when Tonton cut into the line, down to his prying of the token from her hands. She thought of leaving out details, such as how she’d gotten herself kicked out of line, but she’d only be masking her fault, and she deserved to have them know the truth.
Finished, Naema looked up at her mother to see her brow creased with sympathy, and it set off her crying all over again.
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
“No no.” Mama pulled her into a hug. “Don’t be sorry.”
The comfort made it worse. There had been so much of it recently, so many times Naema or Oni had been reduced to tears. It hadn’t always been like this, not back before Papa left.
Mama focused on Naema’s thumb. Gingerly, she touched it. Naema winced. All Naema could do was wiggle it like a dying worm.
“Sleep, now,” Mama said. “Both of you.”
Oni laid back down. Naema crawled to the bed, carefully holding her arm to her stomach.
“Tomorrow you go to the doctor men,” Mama said. The Lakiran’s had medical tents in Nigeria as well as food relief. Unfortunately, the nearest one was down by the bay, nearly four hours walk. And it was always flooded with the screaming and dying. She might be there long past dark, and since she wasn’t critically injured, they wouldn’t let her stay in the tents. She’d have to stay in the dock’s refugee camp overnight to avoid getting caught for curfew violation.
She wanted to argue against going, but Mama was right. This wouldn’t get better on its own.