Roger Willards squeezed his way through the crowd gathered in front of Foodmart. He flashed his access card to the security guard to show that he was one of the employed, not another desperate, jobless man begging for food, like the crowd of people being denied entry.The security guard scanned Roger’s card and opened the door for him. This action was greeted by a chorus of boos and pleas to be let in. One man went so far as to cross the tape and make a rush for the open door, but was met with a taser to the ribs. The man fell down on the pavement with a yelp of pain and clutched his side. Roger felt a pang of both pity and guilt as he watched the man writhing on the ground. He seemed to be only a few years older than Roger, but his skeletal appearance and the dim look in his eyes made him seem much older. For a moment their eyes met and Roger could feel the pain and hunger and resentment that the man felt for him. He looked at Roger as if to say, Why you? Why do you get to feed your family while mine goes hungry? Roger couldn’t bear it any longer and walked up to the counter. “How are you today?” the woman behind the counter asked in a chipper tone. “Fine.” “Great day, isn’t it?” “It’s fine, I guess.” “What can I do for you?”Roger handed her his card and asked for a number two. The number two consisted of a loaf of bread, two bottles of purified water, and enough fruits and vegetables to feed two people for a day. The cashier swiped his card and frowned. “I’m sorry, it appears as though you’re out of number two swipes for the month.” “What? That can’t be right. There’s still a whole week left, I can’t be out already.” “Due to the recent policy change, all green level access cards have been granted fewer number two swipes, but more number one swipes.” “I have a daughter to feed. That’s not nearly enough food for two people.” “I’m sorry sir. Those are the rules of the new policy. If you don’t agree with it---” “No. It’s fine.” Roger knew what would happen if he didn’t agree. He and his daughter Emily would just have to get by with a little less food for the next week. Roger walked out of Foodmart with a loaf of bread and an apple---a day’s supply of food for a number one swipe. The crowd of the unemployed had grown noticeably more upset in the last ten minutes. The negative buzz had developed into synchronized catcalls of “Geralds, Geralds,” a reference to Tom Geralds, CEO of AcciCorp, creator and Chief Operator of the access card system. His office was on the twentieth floor of the building adjacent to Foodmart. The whole scene made Roger feel uncomfortable, and he decided it would be best to just keep moving. He didn’t see the man who had been tased. Roger didn’t know what had happened to him, but he didn’t think it was anything good.Access cards were given out only to men and women who were at least 18 years of age and had a job. Many factors were taken into consideration to determine the status of the access card, such as marital status, type of job and number of dependants. Since Roger was a high school history teacher he had green level status for his access card. All full-time teachers were granted green level, whereas part-time teachers were usually given yellow level cards, unless they also had dependents. Yellow status was the second lowest status one could have. The amount of food one could buy with a yellow level card was just enough to survive. Gold and platinum status cards were reserved for high-level jobs, such as government jobs and law enforcement. Gold status was enough to live a comfortable and fairly luxurious lifestyle. Platinum was only awarded to those at the very top. Not many people had platinum access cards. Roger swiped his card at the turnstile and boarded the monorail. The monorail ran on electricity and was free to anyone with at least yellow status. Cars were a luxury only those with gold or platinum status could afford. Roger got off at Cedar Oaks Lodging, the complex in which he lived. Roger had lived in the complex for the ten years of its existence, since it had opened its doors in 2050. He thought the name of the complex was pretty amusing, since there were no cedars or oaks in sight. Roger swiped his card to enter the building, and then again to take the elevator up to the tenth floor. He entered room 1039 to find his eight-year-old daughter parked in front of the television. “Daddy!” Emily said, running over to give him a hug. Roger dropped the food on the counter and picked her up. “How was school today?” “Good. We got to paint in art class.” Art was Emily’s favorite subject. “We had to leave our pictures there to dry, but Miss Laney said we could take them home on Monday.” “I can’t wait to see how yours turns out,” Roger said. He took out the bread and started making peanut butter sandwiches. “Oh, I also found a flower on my way home.” “That’s nice. Wait, you found a flower?” Roger was so surprised he stopped spreading peanut butter and looked at his daughter. “Yeah, do you want to see it? I took it home with me!” Emily disappeared and came back a moment later, beaming with pride and excitement. “See?” She held out the flower for her dad. Roger laughed. “Wow, honey, this is really something. You don’t see many of these nowadays.” “Is it like the flower we gave mommy when she went to Heaven?” Roger’s smile waned a bit as he thought back to a year ago when he lost his wife. He and Emily had been devastated, and, although it had cost him a large sum, he had bought a vibrant red rose for her grave. “This is a dandelion,” he said, handing it back to his daughter. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Emily nodded. “You know what we should do? We should put it in a cup of water so that it lasts longer.” Emily smiled wide, showing all of her teeth, and started hopping around the kitchen. Roger held a glass under the faucet and collected the murky tap water. The tap water had been unsafe to drink for quite some time. People with yellow cards didn’t have many other options, however. Bottled water was something they could seldom afford, and purifiers were out of the question. Even with a green level card Roger would have to save up for quite a while to be able to buy a purifier. When the cup was two-thirds of the way filled with water, Emily put in the dandelion and Roger placed it on the center of the dining table. The yellow bud of the weed rested calmly on the edge of the glass. “Where did you find this?” Roger asked. “It was sticking out of one of the cracks in the sidewalk.” Roger smiled. As the country had become more urbanized, there was less space for plants and trees. Many plants had died out naturally, or were confined to designated greenhouses. Grass had been paved over, and any unsightly “weeds” were destroyed by the government, which of course included dandelions. For some reason he couldn’t explain, Roger was happy to see that at least one of them had slipped through the cracks. If it made his daughter happy, then it made him happy, he decided. “What’s for dinner?” “Peanut butter sandwiches. I guess there’s a new policy about the access cards, so we’re gonna have to make due with a little less food.” Emily frowned. “Did your card turn yellow?” “What?” “Did your card turn yellow? That’s what happened to Jessica’s parents. Her dad made a mistake at work and his card went from green to yellow. That’s why she stopped going to school.” “No, my card is still green. We just have fewer swipes, everyone does.” “Why?” “Well, there’s a lot of people to feed and this is supposedly the best way to feed them all. World hunger has always been an issue, and it became an even bigger issue after the last war.” Thirty years ago, the President had declared Venezuela an anti-American state and US troops were sent in to “stabilize the country.” This move was seen as a ploy to gain control of Venezuela’s oil reserves and it sparked a brief war with China, who was also interested in Venezuela’s oil supply. After two months of combat, the US had dropped a nuclear bomb on Beijing. A week later, China responded by bombing the Midwest, effectively taking out a significant chunk of the United States’ main crop fields. A ceasefire was called and the US and China had agreed to split the available oil in Venezuela. Hunger in the United States was at an all-time high following the war. A year later, Tom Geralds had proposed the access card system, which had worked initially. It had begun to falter in recent years, however, as more people couldn’t find work and had been stuck with red level status. Roger and Emily sat in silence, eating their sandwiches. After a couple of bites, Emily looked up at her father. “Dad, I’m thirsty. Do we have any water?” “Not any clean water. But tell you what, I’ll go see if Bill will let us borrow his purifier.”Bill lived in the room across the hall from Roger and Emily. He was a friendly, easy-going man with a green status card. He had saved up long enough to buy a decent water filter, claiming that he wanted to get one before they became “gold products”-a term coined for items which could only be obtained by gold and platinum card holders.When Bill answered the door, Roger knew something was wrong. Bill’s normally vibrant face was chalk white, and the spark that usually illuminated his eyes was nowhere in sight.“God, what the hell happened?” Roger asked. “Is everything alright?”“I’ve been demoted,” Bill said quietly.“How bad?”“Red.” Both men stood in silence for a moment as the information sank in. After a moment that felt like a lifetime, Roger spoke up. “How?” “I was at the Foodmart and they told me they had cut my swipes.” “They told me the same thing. New policy, I guess.” Bill nodded. “Well, I didn’t take the news very well. I blew my top and said that I wasn’t going to accept a decrease in swipes when guys like Tom Geralds eat like it’s Thanksgiving every day. Then a security guard stepped in and told me that the system in place was the best possible way to divide the food fairly amongst the people.” “What did you say to that?” “I told him he wouldn’t know anything about fair, being the spoiled gold-suited prick that he was. Next thing I know, I’m out of my job at the monorail station and my card’s been demoted to red level status.” Roger didn’t know what to say. Red status meant ten number one swipes a month. After that, you were on your own until the next month. “What are you gonna do? Will you be able to stay here?” Bill shook his head. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I’ll have to go to the slums, where I’ll be lucky if I can get a bed.” He was referring to the run-down housing units on West Avenue, which were flooded with people who had red status and had nowhere else to go. Roger was starting to think that he should leave and give Bill some time to clear out his apartment when Bill grabbed him by the shoulder in a tight grip. “Things aren’t improving Roger. Every day more people are demoted to red status. Today it was me, but tomorrow it could be you.” His voice was desperate and hushed, as if he didn’t want to be overheard. “Think about Emily. Do you really want her growing up in a world like this?” “I don’t think I have much of a choice.” “That’s where you’re wrong. You do have a choice. We can fight back.” “I can’t risk any sort of demotion. Even a yellow status would mean the end of it for me.” “You know, I heard there’s not really a food crisis at all. I heard it was just an invention of the government in order to regulate us, to weed out the ones who oppose them or are less productive. They’re trying to create a perfect society, and the only way they can do that is if everyone is willing to work hard without questioning what or who they’re working for.” “I don’t know, that all sounds like a big conspiracy.” Bill let go of Roger’s shoulder. “Just think about it,” he said. “Why else is it illegal to grow your own food? Just look at Mrs. Donovan. She was caught with a small garden in her apartment last month. All she had were a couple of strawberries and some green beans growing, but the government stepped in and no one has seen her since.” Roger frowned. This was true. Mrs. Donovan was a nice enough woman and it seemed harmless enough that she was operating her own garden, yet she had been taken away for that reason alone. Roger hadn’t seen her since. “I should probably get back to Emily,” Roger said. He decided not to bring up the water purifier. If Bill still had it, he would be needing it more than Roger. “Take care.” Bill and Roger shook hands and said their goodbyes before Roger walked back to his room. Emily had finished her sandwich and was back in front of the TV. She looked up at the arrival of her dad. “Did you get the filter?” she asked. “No, I didn’t. I’ll go out first thing tomorrow morning and get some bottled water though.” Since it was Friday, Emily was allowed to stay up until 9:30. Roger read her one of his favorite bedtime stories as a child, Where the Wild Things Are. Emily drifted off halfway through the story, but Roger was up much later. He thought about the papers he had to grade that weekend. He thought about Bill, who had been his neighbor for years, who was now going to be living on West Ave with the other unemployed, and above all else, Roger thought about food. How long would it be before he could no longer provide for himself and his daughter? How long before they docked his swipes again, or decided he wasn’t worthy of green status anymore?Roger woke to the buzz of his alarm clock at eight in the morning. Emily was still asleep, and Roger suspected she wouldn’t be up for at least another hour. Just the same, he decided to leave her a note, saying that he was out getting food and he’d be back shortly. She would be fine on her own for a bit. There was something different about the city, but Roger couldn’t put his finger on what it was exactly. The air felt tense, like a military base before war. Roger passed by a bum on his way to Foodmart. The bum looked worn and emaciated, but there was a fire in his eyes that Roger had never seen in another human’s face before. Whatever this look was, it made Roger feel nervous so he picked up his pace. The crowd in front of Foodmart was twice the size of the previous day. In addition to four Foodmart security guards, there were six police officers present to subdue the mass of people who were out of swipes for the month. “Let us in!” someone cried. “You have plenty of food in there, just give us a little bit,” a ginger-haired woman pleaded. The dried dirt on her face took on a fresh muddy consistency as tears rolled down her cheeks. Roger found a security guard and gave him his card. The guard nodded his approval, and Roger entered. Five minutes later, he left with his food for the day-a baguette and a 20 ounce bottle of purified water. Roger was surprised by how much the crowd had grown in his short absence. As he walked out, he felt the weight of every longing gaze from the hungry crowd. They saw fresh bread and clean water, and each one of them felt entitled to a little bit. “Please sir,” the ginger-haired woman said, extending a hand towards Roger. “Can you find it in your heart to break off a piece, just a small piece of bread?” Roger tried to ignore her and walk away, but she was persistent. “It’s not even for me. It’s for my son.” Roger started walking faster, hoping to leave the crowd behind, but he had attracted a small crowd of his own. “Please, won’t you just spare a little food for my starving child?” The woman reached out to grab the bread in Roger’s hand, but he pulled it quickly aside. “I’m sorry miss, but I have my own daughter to feed.” “You don’t need that whole thing,” a new man said. He had thin, greasy hair, and hollow eyes, that flickered with each glance to the baguette. He, too, reached for the food, and suddenly Roger found himself fending off three different people in order to keep his bread and water. The ginger-haired woman let out a triumphant shout as she managed to rip a big chunk off the end. She stuffed the whole piece in her mouth before anyone else could take it from her and turned her focus immediately back to Roger, in the hopes of another bite. Roger hugged the water and bread in tight to his body, absorbing fists and scratches as he tried desperately to keep the food protected. Amid the clawing and shrieking of the people around him, Roger heard a familiar voice yell out, “Stop!” The abruptness and authoritative nature of the command was enough to cause Roger’s attackers to freeze in the midst of what they were doing, and to Roger’s surprise, he saw that the voice belonged to Bill. “This man is not the enemy,” Bill said. “He is just trying to feed his daughter, as any one of us would be doing in his situation. We can’t take out our hunger frustration on an innocent man, such as him.” To Roger’s relief, Bill’s speech seemed to be working. Bill had everyone’s undivided attention. Roger looked back at the Foodmart entrance and noticed one of the police officers talking into his radio. “Instead, let us turn our anger on the ones in charge, the ones who dine like kings in a palace, while we starve in the streets.” Bill’s words were met with uproarious approval, as the crowd rallied behind him. Roger watched Bill lead the group to the front of AcciCorp, Geralds’ building. Police sirens wailed in the distance as Bill demanded access into the building. The security guards stood stone still and told Bill that he was not authorized to enter. This was his warning to calm down and leave. Bill walked away, only to return moments later with a two by four. He raised it above his head, but before he could swing it down on the glass siding, he was met with a blast of pepper spray to the face. Bill let out an agonized cry and felt the hands of two of the cops grabbing him by the arms, ready to take him away.Bill tried to wriggle free, but a third cop showed up and delivered a shot to his gut with the end of his baton. Bill slumped forward and puked on the pavement. Roger felt helpless watching it all transpire, caught up not knowing whether to get involved or return home to his daughter. He knew he should get out of there, but something kept him rooted to the spot, watching his long-time neighbor and friend take a beating. When he couldn’t take it anymore, Roger looked around for an object to throw. Unable to find anything, he took off his right shoe and hurled it at the cops, twenty feet away.The shoe spun in the air and plunked one of the cops on the head. There was a moment’s hesitation as the cops turned from Bill to look for the source of the shoe. In that moment, Bill broke free from the grip of the cops and began feeling around for the two by four. The cops rushed to bring him down, but the mob of the unemployed snapped into action and charged the cops and guards. Bill swung the piece of wood and managed to connect with the glass wall of AcciCorp, through the blurred vision the pepper spray had left him.Squad cars rolled up on either side of the mob of people, which continued to grow as they rushed towards the building in maddened waves. The cops and guards were able to mow most of them down, but a few made it inside, where they tore up the first floor, breaking anything they could get their hands on. A group of five people, headed by Bill, surrounded the terrified secretary and took her access card to open up the door to the stairs. The bodies of the unemployed piled up inside and outside the building as the cops did everything in their power to contain the pandemonium that had erupted. Roger had retreated to a small corner where he was out of the firing range and watched in horror, unable to force himself to flee the scene. The distant sound of glass shattering caught the attention of all who remained outside. In a moment that felt independent of everything else going on, the crowd of the unemployed and cops alike, held their breath as the body of Tom Geralds fell from the sky and landed with a solid thump on the hard, unforgiving pavement. A few gunshots went off and then a second body fell from the window. Roger felt his stomach twist into a tight, sickening knot as he recognized the body as Bill. Roger decided he had stayed too long. He stood up to leave, but felt woozy, and feared that he might lose whatever food was in his stomach. Roger took a deep breath and gathered himself enough to make it to the monorail station.Although he told himself that there was no reason to worry, Roger breathed a huge sigh of relief when he came home to see Emily parked in front of the television. “Morning dad---are you okay?” Emily saw the state her dad was in and started to worry. “Dad, what happened?” “Nothing sweetheart, I’m fine.” Roger could tell by the fear in Emily’s eyes that she didn’t entirely believe him. “Where’s your other shoe, and what happened to the bread?” “I ate a piece,” Roger said, ignoring the part about his shoe. “I got a little hungry on the way home. What do you say I fix us up with some toast with butter?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. Emily’s face lit up and answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Roger smiled for the first time all day. He opened the fridge and took out the butter. He was down to one fourth of a stick. He liked to buy it every once in a blue moon and save it for a special occasion. Today seemed to be as good an occasion as any. Roger fixed Emily up with a piece of toast and a small cup of water from the bottle. “The dandelion doesn’t look as yellow as it did yesterday,” she said, a tone of disappointment in her voice. “I think it needs some of the clean water.” “No.” Roger’s voice came off harsh, a little harsher than he had intended it. Emily drew back, hurt by the sharpness of his voice. “I’m sorry honey,” he said, relaxing a little. “It’s just that there’s not much drinking water and you need it more than the dandelion does.” “But the sink water is bad for it,” she said. “No means no,” Roger said. They ate the rest of their toast in silence. When they were finished, Roger turned on the TV and flipped it to the news. The anchorman reported a “devastating development”-that an angry mob of red status citizens had stormed AcciCorp. He reported that although the authorities were able to prevent the situation from being any worse-“thank god for that”-a few people had managed to break into Tom Geralds’ office on the 20th floor and had thrown him out the window. “Not to worry,” the newscaster said. “The perpetrators have been brought to justice and I’ve received notice that a promising young man by the name of Hank Williamson will take over his position as CE---” the story wasn’t over, but Roger had heard enough. He turned off the TV and knocked on Emily’s door. She was in her room, drawing a picture when he came in. “What’re you drawing?” he asked. “The sun,” she said. “It’s a very beautiful picture.” Roger’s comment was sincere; he was amazed by his daughter’s ability to bring out the bright orange-yellow so vividly in her picture. “I was just thinking,” he said after a pause. “We should give your flower some clean water. It’s a beautiful flower and we should preserve it as long as we can.” Emily smiled wide and leapt off the bed. “Can I pour it?” she asked. “Yes, but after I’ve rationed it into a cup.”Roger drained the old murky water in the sink and handed Emily a cup with a little bottled water. He watched her pour it into the glass which held the dandelion, using all her concentration so as not to spill any of it.“Are you sure it’s okay to give some of our water to the flower?” Emily asked.“Yes, it’s okay,” Roger said. Soon Emily would understand the cruel nature of the world in which they lived, but it didn’t have to be today. Today she was happy, and if she was happy, Roger was happy. “Some things are worth preserving.”
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