21 Flies - Chapter 2
Charlie looks at himself in the mirror. Something isn’t quite right. His shirt. His pants. His belt. It all looks the same, yet there’s something unsatisfying in the reflection. The placket of his shirt is rumpled and protruding. He tries to smooth it down. It all looks very stiff. He flaps his arms several times, the hem of his shirt gradually untucking with each motion. A muffin top of fabric is left around his stomach. He pushes down the extra slack back into his waistband, frowning. Nothing feels comfortable and everything feels different.
This is going to bother me.
On any other morning Charlie wouldn’t give these thoughts a consideration, let alone fixate on them. This sort of attention to detail were always non-issues. He simply accepted everything about himself as ‘just is’. The sound of hot coffee percolates in the background. His thoughts roil with anxiety.
It’s dark in here. A ceiling lamp casts from overhead. The cracks along the cheap plaster walls stand out in stark contrast against the light. Each step Charlie takes causes the wooden floorboards creak with stress. A worn out jacket hangs off the back of his dining chair. At least this is still where it’s supposed to be. He seats himself down at the table. Hot coffee in one hand, tossing down a stolen newspaper with the other.
The cover glows like a kindling flame echoing in the dim. Headlines pan across as silent adverts cycle on repeat. Charlie takes a sip of his coffee. Several beads of it drips down onto the screen in patters before rolling off the edge, leaving behind an impression of the heat trailing off the display. The pages are rigid, especially for a recycled material. Still, it’s pretty amazing what technology can do to something as mundane as the newspaper. A woman grins as she’s brushing her teeth. A product hangs over a generic backdrop. The images pixelate and tears with each agitation. Various silent ads run between the many insignificant articles. The presiding governing body is once again being shaken up due to corruption. A debate on the efficacy of renewable energy and pollution control persists, despite decades of inaction. The top news though? A story of an actor who had died while he was drinking. It was no one he has heard of.
The room is quiet. A single bulb hums with the force of a hundred watts. Besides him a large pane of glass embedded into the wall begins to illuminate the apartment, steady like a waxing moon. Beyond it, a projection of a dark industrial cityscape takes form. Charlie looks out. Distant windows dot the horizon like starlights. Flying crafts stitch in and out of a miasma of steam and pollution. Signs and billboards of brilliant neon gleam through the thickness. Above it all, an incredible nuclear reactor suspended in a monolith glows, it's radiance so orange and ominous. The top and bottom of the megastructure flourishes out in every direction, before encapsulating back on itself. A ringed city within an artificial dome.
The time reads 0514. Charlie’s commute takes roughly thirty minutes from his place. He cleans up after himself and heads out into the halls, turning to face a miniature sensor just beside his apartment door. A ray of blue shines into his retina and briefly distorts his vision. The locks engage behind him. A distinct, electronic chirping sizzles in the back of his head. A sign that the neural ID is updating. He makes his way towards the elevators to wait for the lift. Disquieted thoughts occupy Charlie’s mind. He sees that everyone else on the floor had already picked up their copy of the morning paper. Where his own went however, was still without explanation. The same now goes for his neighbor too.
Thirty nine. Forty. Forty one. A bell chimes at forty two. The doors open. The elevator is already half occupied with tenants. A woman casts a side-eyeing glance at Charlie, very intently scanning down at his shirt. Her coat casually hanging in the cross of her arms. Another gentleman besides her is adjusting the sleeves of his jacket. They turn their bodies a slight, reluctantly creating extra room for another body to fit in between them. Charlie clears his throat and offers a half-hearted chin wave in appreciation, or acknowledgement. He presses his lips into an awkward, insincere smile. Nobody actually cares. The lift descends.
Outside of his apartments is loud and busy. A large plaza draped in canopies of ripped fabric and sheet metal roofs emerges from among the surrounding complexes. Dozens of shops stack besides one another, forming long rows of disorganized tents and shacks. Sewage lines rush beneath gaps of steel-grate floorings. Leaky drainage pipes regurgitate wastewater along the pathways. The makeshift alleys are deliberately lit by a convoluted system of exposed copper wire and recycled lights of varying wattage, erratically threading throughout the crowded stalls.
All around people are yelling over one another, trying to make a sale or get through. Somewhere, musicians can be heard loudly singing and banging drums. The marketplace is humid and the air is dense, filled with the smells of burning trash and urban game cooking on an open flame. Charlie lives one degree above total and utter destitution.
He navigates through the heavy congestion of passerbys until coming across a vendor that sells disposable breathing masks. He grabs at one of the many hanging down like strung fish on a line, making gestures to the woman at the counter. She immediately makes her way over and holds an electronic device up to his eye. A ray of blue shines into the retina as the apparatus beeps in approval. His vision distorts again. The chirping sound resonates clearly within Charlie’s head despite the commotions of the marketplace. He doesn’t get the chance to say ‘thank you’ to the woman who’s already moved on to serve another customer waiting nearby. He wraps the cheap pieces of recycled elastic over his ears before pinching down on the nose of the mask cover, securing it over his mouth.
A short distance away at the end of all the crowded shops, a grand clock like a full moon above the substation gate reads 0526. There’s a brief visual tear as he passes through the scanners. Inside, the platforms are crowded with commuters who are talking amongst each other, smoking a cigarette or just idly reading whatever they can get their hands on. Most everyone here right now is wearing business attire. As part of the working-class citizenship, collared shirts, slacks and jackets are the hallmarks of an identity that separates themselves from the under-class; The unfortunate majority forced to live off of the streets. A loud rattling sound distinguishes itself from among the white noise of public space. The ventilation kicks up into a dull rumble. There’s a cool breeze. Seeing everyone waiting around for the train elicits a sudden realization. Charlie had forgotten his jacket.
He’s suddenly become a push-pin of casting glares. An awkward beacon in a sea of expectations and conformity. He feels the frigid air and spindling chills of awkwardness stimulating at the hairs upon his arms. Everyone thinks he’s a fucking idiot.