DEATHDAYS WERE BIRTHDAYS. That’s what they said to ease their pain, those who were left behind. An old man dies and a lottery is won. Children weep while hopeful parents cry tears of joy. Deathdays were birthdays, and no one knew this better than Mission Jones.
Tomorrow was his seventeenth. Tomorrow, he would grow a year older. It would also mark seventeen years to the day since his mother had died.
The cycle of life was everywhere — it wrapped around all things like the great spiral staircase — but nowhere was it more evident, nowhere could it be seen so clearly that a life given was one taken away, than in him. And so Mission approached his birthday without joy, with a heavy load on his young back, thinking on death and celebrating nothing.
Three steps below him and matching his pace, Mission could hear his friend Cam wheezing from his half of the load. When Dispatch assigned them a tandem, the two boys had flipped a coin — heads for heads, and Cam had lost. That left Mission out in front with a clear view of the stairs. It also gave him rights to set the pace, and his dark thoughts made for an angry one.
Traffic was light on the stairwell that morning. The children were not yet up and heading to school, those of them who still went any more. A few bleary-eyed shopkeeps staggered to work. There were service workers with grease stains on their bellies and patches sewn into their knees coming off late shifts. One man descended bearing more than a non-porter should, but Mission was in no mood to set down his burden and weigh another’s. It was enough to glare at the gentleman, to let him know that he’d been seen.
‘Three more to go,’ he huffed to Cam as they passed the thirty-fifth. His porter’s strap was digging into his shoulders, the load a heavy one. Heavier still was its destination. Mission hadn’t been back to the farms in near on four months, hadn’t seen his father in just as long. His brother, of course, he saw at the Nest now and then, but it’d still been a few weeks. To arrive so near to his birthday would be awkward, but there was no avoiding it. He trusted his father to do as he always had and ignore the occasion altogether, to ignore the fact that he was getting any older.
Past the thirty-fifth they entered another gap between the levels full of graffiti. The noxious odour of home-mixed paint hung in the air. Recent work dribbled in places, parts of it done the night before. Bold letters wrapped across the curving wall of concrete far beyond the stairway railing that read:
This is our ’Lo.
The slang for silo felt dated, even though the paint was not yet dry. Nobody said that any more. Not for years. Further up and much older:
Clean this, Mother—
The rest was obscured in a wash of censoring paint. As if anyone could read it and not fill in the blank. It was the first half that was the killing offence, anyway.
Down with the Up Top!
Mission laughed at this one. He pointed it out to Cam. Probably painted by some kid born above the mids and full of self-loathing, some kid who couldn’t abide their own good fortune. Mission knew the kind. They were his kind. He studied all this graffiti painted over last year’s graffiti and that from all the many years before. It was here between the levels, where the steel girders stretched out from the stairwell to the cement beyond, that such slogans went back generations.
The End is Coming…
Mission marched past this one, unable to argue. The end
His father would laugh and disagree, of course. Mission could hear his father’s voice from all the levels away, telling him how people had thought the same thing long before he and his brother were born, that it was the hubris of each generation to think this anew, to think that their time was special, that all things would come to an end with them. His father said it was
Thoughts such as these made Mission’s neck itch. He held the hauling strap with one hand and adjusted the ’chief around his neck with the other. It was a nervous habit, hiding his neck when he thought about the end of things.
‘You doing okay up there?’ Cam asked.
‘I’m fine,’ Mission called back, realising he’d slowed. He gripped his strap with both hands and concentrated on his pace, on the job. There was a metronome in his head from his shadowing days, a tick-tock, tick-tock for tandem hauls. Two porters with good timing could fall into a rhythm and wind their way up a dozen flights, never feeling a heavy load. Mission and Cam weren’t there yet. Now and then one of them would have to shuffle his feet or adjust his pace to match the other. Otherwise, their load might sway dangerously.
Their load. It was easier to think of it that way. Better not to think of it as a body — a dead man.
Mission thought of his grandfather, whom he’d never known. He had died in the uprising of ’78, had left behind a son to take over the farm and a daughter to become a chipper. Mission’s aunt had quit that job a few years back; she no longer banged out spots of rust and primed and painted raw steel. Nobody did. Nobody bothered. But his father was still farming that same plot of soil, that same plot generations of Jones boys had farmed, forever insisting that things would never change.
‘That word means something else, you know,’ his father had told him once, when Mission had spoken of revolution. ‘It also means to go around and around. To revolve. One revolution, and you get right back to where you started.’
This was the sort of thing Mission’s father liked to say when the priests came to bury a man beneath his corn. His dad would pack the dirt with a shovel, say that’s how things go, and plant a seed in the neat depression his thumb made.
Mission had told his friends this other meaning of revolution. He had pretended to come up with it himself. It was just the sort of pseudo-intellectual nonsense they regaled each other with late at night on dark landings while they inhaled potato glue out of plastic bags.
His best friend Rodny had been the only one unimpressed. ‘Nothing changes until we
Mission wondered what his best friend was doing now. He hadn’t seen Rodny in months. Whatever he was shadowing for in IT kept him from getting out much.
He thought back to better days, growing up in the Nest with friends tight as a fist. He remembered thinking they would all stay together and grow old in the up top. They would live along the same hallways, watch their eventual kids play the way they had.
But they had all gone their separate ways. It was hard to remember who had done it first, who had shaken off the expectations of their parents to follow in their footsteps, but eventually most of them had. Each of them had left home to choose a new fate. Sons of plumbers took up farming. Daughters of the cafeteria learned to sew. Sons of farmers became porters.
Mission remembered being angry when he left home. He remembered a fight with his father, throwing down his shovel, promising he’d never dig a trench again. He’d learned in the Nest that he could be anything he wanted, that he was in charge of his own fate. And so when he grew miserable, he assumed it was the farms that made him feel that way; he assumed it was his family.
He and Cam had flipped a dime back in Dispatch, heads for heads, and Mission had wound up with a dead man’s shoulders pressed against his own. When he lifted his gaze to survey the steps ahead, the back of his skull touched a corpse’s crown through a plastic bag — birthdays and deathdays pressed tight, two halves of a single coin. Mission carried them both, this load meant for two. He took the stairs a pair at a time, a brutal pace, up towards the farm of his youth.