(Much too long for the website, this is a preview of the story. The full version is available in print or eBook issues.)
Vyra tried to read what appeared on the screen — no easy task from her side of the translucent rectangle. She wondered how much information they had about her in their system.
“Remove your goggles,” the clerk said. Vyra complied as a thin metal tube detached itself from the side of the see-through computer screen. With a buzzing sound, the tube unfolded and precisely found Vyra’s left eye. A light on the end of the tube flashed.
“Identity confirmation complete,” a robotic voice announced from the computer as an image of her iris and pupil appeared on the screen.
The clerk typed for a couple of minutes, not speaking, her pasty complexion topped with a puff of pinkish-orange hair piled high on top of her head. The hue of that hair made Vrya think of shrimp-flavoured crackers, she’d once sampled years ago, that tasted like chemical-infused, salty Styrofoam. She felt queasy, but said, “I studied graphic design…before.” The clerk did not look up, as she continued typing.
“You are too old for the youth assistance program. You have no dependents. You are too young for elder aid. Do you have any addictions? Or are you capable of Regimental training?”
“I have back problems so I don’t think I could handle the training. No addictions unless drinking the cheapest brand of instant coffee counts,” Vyra laughed. “I mean, I must be addicted to drink that swill, right?”
Shrimp-puff-head simply stared at Vyra for a moment before saying, “Your file will be passed on to Department H. You will be contacted with a time slot.”
Vyra sighed. This was her third appointment with the agency. “Does ‘H’ stand for hell? Or just ‘hopeless case’? I need assistance now.”
“Please move along. Others are waiting.”
An armed guard stood watch outside of the cubicle, so Vyra left the building.
She placed the goggles over her eyes and walked the pristine streets to the station. Even the alleys were clean; no trash nor vagrants to be seen. Like her coffee, the goggles she wore were a bargain brand. They provided adequate protection from the blinding sun rays, but the cheap material irritated her skin. She preferred the dark of night.
Passengers held up their palms to the fare readers and entered the shiny subway cars. Not Vyra, she had enough balance left to pay for her room and buy some meagre grocery items. She walked to track number thirteen where the Free Train rested with open doors. She walked through the metal detector vestibule before one of the doors, found a seat that wasn’t completely filthy, and waited. Once the usual transportation option for those on the fringes, the line, which used older trains, now commonly had riders who could be considered average citizens. There were a few rough characters, but for the most part, the riders were a typical mix of urban dwellers.
The train emerged from the tunnel, chugging along the outdoor portion of the tracks, revealing a transformation of the urban landscape from bright and shiny to blight and grimy. There were workers collecting refuse and sandblasting buildings. She thought she spotted someone being pushed into a Regiment van, but she couldn’t quite see the event before the scene vanished from view. Farther and farther north. They keep forcing us to. the northern city limits while they clean up and create their lovely neighbourhoods.
There was no mistaking the figure walking down the length of the car, just as Vyra rose to go to the exit doors, waiting for her approaching stop. Kale’s appearance was the same as it had been in high school — tall and thin; straight and angles everywhere. Her head was shaved and she was dressed in raggedy clothing topped with an old leather jacket. She spotted Vyra, unfortunately.
“Heyyy, Rosa!” Kale said and joined her at the door.
“Oh shit, yeah, Vyra, Vyra. You going home? You still live on Quarry Street?”
Kale’s face was even thinner than Vyra remembered, her goggles were pulled down, resting on her nose, beneath wild dark eyes.
“My parents are gone, I live on Chester.”
“Ahh, man. Yeah, my folks are gone, I think. I dunno they kicked me out when I was seventeen,” Kale laughed. “Hey, you got a place? Can I crash for a bit? I’m living in a tent over behind the factory.”
Hell, no. Think, think Vyra. “Sorry to hear that, Kale. But my landlady won’t let anybody else into my room. It is monitored day and night.”
The subway stopped and Vyra walked out through the door and vestibule, down the rickety staircase to John Street, with Kale tagging along.
“Yeah, it’s okay. Tonight I’m gonna try again to get scooped, anyway,” Kale said.
“For sure! Some folks get scooped and come out so clean and sober; so bright. They give them jobs. They give them great digs. Hell, I heard some even go up to the Shades.”
The Shades, Vyra knew, was the name of a community an hour north of the city. Enormous solar-resistant canopies were built over everything: houses, buildings, roads, parks. If you lived in The Shades, you could walk around without goggles, day or night.
“It sounds like what the government is doing downtown. Having soldiers clean up the streets, and the people, too. Is ‘scooped’ what you call it when the Regiment picks up an addict or a homeless person?”
Kale laughed and shook her head back and forth. “No! Well, maybe like that, yeah. But this is rogue, man. This ain’t the Regiment. But they have the same cure-stuff as the officials. They got that stuff that cures any kinda addiction.”
“Well, good luck. Almost makes me wish I was an addict,” Vyra laughed, then immediately regretted the quip. She was proud to be of sound mind and body despite the hardships she faced.
“You can fake it, man! You know Barton Prill?”
Vyra vaguely remembered the name, someone from their school she thought.
“I think he faked it – took some pills, but just enough to seem high and still know what he was doing. Met him a month later, told me all about it. First – they let him in this room with all the drugs he wanted, then when he was done they took him and cured him.”
“But if he wasn’t really addicted, what was there to cure?”
They were nearing the corner of Chester now, and would part ways when Vyra turned to walk up the block.
“Whatever, man. I know it works and Bart got a nice apartment over on Second Street. He works downtown in some Regiment office now.”
“Where is this so-called ‘scoop’, and do they pick up anyone? Addicts only, or anyone homeless, nut cases or what?” A job and nice apartment…
Kale poked Vyra in the shoulder. “You. You can be picked up. Just pretend to be an addict or something. I’m gonna try under the overpass tonight. They won’t go near the factory lot — I wish — but they check out the laneways some nights, and under the bridges other nights.”
Vyra started to turn up her street, but asked, “Kale, who are ‘they’?”
“Who cares? I only know they help out the Regiment, I guess. Like they’re getting started on this part of the city while the Reggies work their way up from downtown.”
“You’re sure everyone they take turns out okay – better?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Kale paused and gazed up at the sky for a moment. “But, uh…there were a couple of girls I heard got scooped and they never came back. Bet they went on to live up North or somewhere better.”
Vyra was not about to take Kale’s word for it; the girl had always been a live wire and who knows how reliable. Vyra swiped the screen on the wall of her room. The standard and dated computer came to life. She searched for any information she could find about ‘the scoop’. She had to dig deep.
M.M. MacLeod writes fiction and poetry in Hamilton, ON Canada.
…SEE complete version of “The Scoop” in Issue # 2 ; paperback or eBook