Project XYZ: Chapter 3
As soon as Anita got home, she changed her clothes and brushed her teeth. Charlie would be home soon, and he could smell cigarette smoke from a mile away. She grabbed the ends of her long black hair and breathed in the scent. “Fuck it,” she said. “Once he hears about the Ys, he’ll want a smoke himself.” She was supposed to have quit, but she still snuck a few on particularly hard days. Today was definitely one of those days.
She opened the refrigerator and surveyed the options. The carcass of a roasted chicken, picked nearly clean; a few stalks of celery; half a bag of baby carrots; a head of iceberg lettuce; a jar of peanut butter; and a jar of jalapenos. She grabbed the chicken, lettuce and carrots and placed them on the stained Formica countertop. “Soup it is,” she muttered. She filled a large pot with water and turned the gas burner on high. From the pantry, she retrieved a bag of rice, salt, and a can of chicken broth.
While she waited for the water to boil, Anita flipped on the local news. She half expected to see a report about the Y at her school but knew that the administration did everything possible to keep it quiet. Not a single reporter showed up at the school.
Charlie Bennett worked the early morning shift at Y-Worker Collection and Disposal. His days usually ended around two o’clock, but nowadays he had been working overtime. He was paid per body, so he only took the overtime if he was guaranteed at least two extra corpses. Lately that was never a problem. There were so many more ways to die these days, what with the expansion of weapons permits and a general jitteriness. Zero sightings were still uncommon, but people were panicked. And when people panicked, people died. Anita had never been a heavy drinker, but since the Zeros started crossing the border, Charlie made her promise to keep her drinking in check. With her golden skin and black hair, a wobbly walk could easily be mistaken for the undead.
Anita tossed the meager ingredients into the water. Money was tight. Her job as a glorified babysitter didn’t cover their expenses, and Charlie was still paying off the loans he took out to get his collection certification. The price of imported goods wasn’t helping matters, either. Fruit and vegetable imports had slowed to a trickle in the past few months, and once the United States sealed off its southern border they all but stopped. The President urged people to “eat local,” as if they had a choice. The Y-Worker Program was supposed to alleviate the shortages by increasing food production in the United States, but Anita had not yet noticed a difference. So, she made use of every last bit of chicken and hoped that things would turn around soon.
Charlie found Anita in the kitchen, slicing the crusts off of bread. He threw his arms around her and grabbed a slice. “Hey! You eat that now and you won’t have any later,” Anita warned him. He didn’t care. He was hungry. Collection work was grueling, both mentally and physically. He took one big bite of bread and put the rest back.
“So how many did you get?” she asked. “Guess,” he replied. This was their game, and they played it every day. It was called Guess How Many Charlie Bagged Today. Anita was always wrong and suspected that Charlie fudged the numbers if she guessed right the first time, but she got a kick out of it anyway.
“Twelve?” she guessed.
“Nope,” he replied.
“Higher or lower?”
“Higher, I like that!” Anita was always pleased when the numbers went up because that meant Charlie’s pay went up as well.
“Fourteen?” she guessed.
“Really? But you’ve never bagged more than twelve in a day. And how is that even possible? You’re home at your normal time.”
“Today was a good day. Suicide pact.”
“Oh Charlie, don’t say it like that, it’s not a good day. That’s fucked up.”
“The whole world is fucked up, Anita. Might as well make a buck off of it.”
There was nothing good about Charlie’s job except for the money. YWCD paid thirty-eight dollars per corpse. But he had to work hard for those thirty-eight dollars. It started out with a call from the coroner’s office. They were usually good about waiting until there were multiple donor bodies before calling in the collectors, so a typical call might net two or three corpses. The collectors took turns, and whoever’s turn it was when the call came in, that person had to go. If it was just one corpse, you were out of luck. If it was multiples, you were golden. Today, Charlie hit the lottery with the suicides. Eight bodies on one call.
Anita hated hearing about the bodies. Charlie used to be a mortgage broker. He worked at a desk in an office with a window and a bright future. But once the Zeros started crossing the Mexican border, banks stopped lending to borrowers in bordering states. When Charlie got laid off and decided to enroll in the collection course, Anita was apprehensive. How could he stand to be around all of that death? But Charlie saw it differently. He saw potential. To Charlie, the bodies weren’t dead–they were just transforming. “They’re like butterflies,” he would tell her. Except nobody ever died from a butterfly bite.
“So speaking of Ys,” Anita said as she ladled the soup into bowls. “We had one today.”
“What do you mean you ‘had one,’” Charlie asked. “Somebody bring it in for show-and-tell?”
“I mean we had one. At school. Loose.” She placed the bowls on the kitchen table and retrieved the sliced bread from the counter. Charlie began eating before Anita sat down.
“Yeah, okay. Right,” Charlie said between spoonfuls.
“No seriously, we did. Or I did. It was in my classroom, just sort of sloshing around. Stank like you wouldn’t believe, and it made these sounds. Uuuuhhhhrrrrmmm…mmmrrrrrmmmm….” When Anita imitated the Y-worker’s groans, she reached her arms out and pawed at Charlie’s head across the table. “Braaaaiiinnnsss….”
Charlie put his spoon down. “Wait, you saw one? In person? Was it working at your school, like a janitor or something?”
“Working? At a school? Have you lost your mind? No, it wasn’t working. It was…lost. I think the cops called it ‘misplaced.’”
“Misplaced? From where? The Y-Worker Program is so tightly regulated that I can’t even get access to a ‘live’ one and I work for the damned company!”
“I don’t know. I heard that the pecan orchard uses Ys now, so maybe one wandered off. It’s only a few miles away, and I hear those things will walk until their feet fall off.”
“Yeah, maybe. Weird though, with all that security. You okay? It was just a Y, right?”
“I’m fine, and I got the kids out of there. I don’t think it was dangerous. It just seemed, I don’t know. Lonely? It kept walking towards us, like it wanted to be near people. Ugh, and it stank! Charlie, it was so gross, I don’t know how you can stand it. That thing smelled rotten. And its uniform was disgusting, all dirty. It was real dirt, too. Not just dust. And it looked like it had tried to claw its mask off.”
Anita sat down at the kitchen table with her bowl of soup, but talking about the Y-Worker made her lose her appetite. “Here, you want mine?” she asked, pushing her bowl towards Charlie.
“What are you going to eat?” Charlie responded. He was hungry and wanted the extra bowl of soup, but he hated when Anita skipped meals because it almost guaranteed that she would sneak out for a cigarette. If they were ever going to have children, she had to quit smoking.
“I’ll have your bread. We’ve got peanut butter and there’s a thing of grape jelly that I took home from the diner,” she said. Before Charlie could answer, Anita was rummaging through the drawer for the Smucker’s packet.
“Fine with me,” Charlie said, “But tomorrow, we’re having burgers and I’m getting myself a six pack of beer. I collected seventeen X’s today, Anita. Seventeen. If this keeps up, we’re going to be eating like we were before the world went to shit.”
“Charlie, if this keeps up, we’ve got much bigger problems than the grocery bills.”