The Maw of Los Angeles
Orwell straightened the starched collar of his cornflower blue button-down shirt as he stepped out the door of Laura’s Calabasas apartment, a layer of flavored gloss still fresh upon his withered lips. His eyes dilated as he stepped squinting into the California sun, the cool breeze carrying with it the fragrance of fresh, damp grass and morning smog. Orwell allowed his lungs to gradually expand with air, tilting his neck in one direction and then the other to the therapeutic bubble wrap snapping of vertebrae realigning themselves within his spine.
He hesitated in his stretch, bringing his shoulder up to meet the cheek of his slanted head before pressing it soothingly against the corner of his lip. Oh, to be young again. Orwell closed his eyes, his mind drifting back to the lilac sheets he had left Laura under upstairs, and those smooth, pale breasts barely hidden beneath sparkling curtains of golden hair. She’s too good for you, he told himself, as he always did. A guilty smile bloomed on his mangled face. Well, at least you still have your charm. Orwell’s vision at last adjusting the to the bright morning sun, his eyes focused to meet those of a middle-aged woman in a tangerine jogging suit walking her dog across the cul-de-sac. Or perhaps the term “walking” should be omitted, as she was doing nothing of the such.
Instead she stood glaring with mild disdain towards him as her brown shih tzu began to gradually asphyxiate itself against its collar in futile attempt to reach the patch of grass a mere three feet away, its tiny fluffy paws scratching softly against the hot sidewalk pavement. Orwell despised people like that – the type of pure-skin that sees “one of them” walking through their neighborhood and feels their property value plummet like a hummingbird tied to a bag of stones. He let the air escape from his chest with a heavy sigh. She probably thinks I’m the maid...
Orwell slouched as he walked past the palm trees and pastel-colored Barbie Dream Houses towards his blue ’86 sedan, his brown shriveled left hand digging numbingly for the keys in his pocket. “Our right-hand man!” the boys down at the dig site would jest. Orwell scowled. So much for my good mood…
Click. Ca-thunk. He pulled open the door with a forceful tug and slid inside. An odor of sweat and old library books permeated the compartment’s warm air. His fingers slowly wrapped around the top button of his collared shirt. He had found it earlier that week in the bargain bin of some clothing outlet store in Pasadena.
|| Italian Long-Sleeve Button-Up, Blue. 120 thread count - $20 ||
Laura loved it. “You’re the most dashing zombie I’ve ever laid eyes on,” she said. He smiled and lurched forward to kiss her. She was the only one who could call him that and get away with it.
Button-by-button Orwell worked his way down his shirt, revealing the seared, decayed flesh beneath. A sight to sore eyes, he would often quip. He inspected himself in the rear-view mirror with his one still-functioning eye. The other started going blind almost immediately after the Dredge Day catastrophe over two years ago, then slowly weakened over the passing months, the cataract spreading outward until it had turned his entire cornea as white as fresh-fallen snow.
The furthest right third of his face was relatively untouched by Rivetrine decay, his vibrant blue iris and smooth pale skin serving as painful reminders of the handsome, vivacious man he once was. However, Orwell knew that one day this too would be taken from him. The sickness would spread, taking with it his other eye and any remaining strands of the few patches of hair that still latched to his scalp. His remaining flesh would steadily turn a sickly yellow and fleck off, revealing the cauterized sinew and cheekbone below. Worse, Laura would probably leave him he was convinced – unable to see any remnant of the man she once loved. Count your blessings wretch, he told himself, for some day you will have none.
He peeled off his shirt and placed it carefully on top of a small stack of briefcases that contained old, tattered screenplays and manuscripts in various states of completion. He turned around to face the backseat of the sedan, which was piled high with various suitcases, knapsacks, and plastic bins containing Orwell’s personal belongings – a Sign Master calligraphy set, mismatched pairs of socks, tarnished copper pots and pans, some old assorted vinyl records, a mostly-empty bottle of cheap brandy, assorted VHS tapes categorized by genre, a dusty pair of red sneakers with worn-in soles and sawtooth laces...
He leaned over the chair and pulled a dirt-caked gray suitcase towards his chest before reaching inside and grabbing an old baggy shirt and pair of pants from within. A thin cloud of dust and debris diffused throughout the cabin as he slid them over himself and pushed the key into the ignition. The engine made a sickly sputtering noise before revving up to full speed.
The sedan drove through the mountainside ridges, its contents jostling and clamoring on their seats in rhythm to the countless tiny bumps and scars in the dilapidated gravel road. Coming around a bend Orwell could see the ruins of Los Angeles below, its skyscrapers bent and broken, embedded and lost underneath a sea of torn earth.
Among them were the giant pneumatic drills – Those fucking drills. Those monstrous, world wrecking, flesh melting drills. Those same drills that fell from the sky a little over two years ago, tore California a couple new assholes and left Orwell looking like an extra from “Dawn of the Dead.” They slept diagonally, rusted and immovable in their colossal size, slumbering amidst the defiled urban canopy.
A small, sun-warped cassette tape sat half-inserted in the car’s dashboard. Orwell slid it inside with the knuckle of his forefinger. “Dr-rrream of Californica-a-ation…” the speakers murmured, its melody distorted and wavering in timbre.
The car slowly descended into the valley of West Hollywood, its makeshift dirt roads littered with the rubble and uprooted signs and cement blocks that bulldozers had pushed aside. The lifeless corpses of houses and lampposts clung in languish upon the slanted plains of earth that jutted towards the heavens. The red wrought-iron beams of Dig Site E-028 grew on the horizon.
Orwell glanced apprehensively down at the dashboard.
He sighed. “Late again…”
“…That girl is gonna be the death of me.”
The cassette player began to sputter and whine, its disjointed melody accompanied by the clings and clangs of bottles trembling violently in the backseat.
“P-pa-aaay your surgEEeon v-very well to brea-a-a-a-a-a-a—“ Orwell slammed his fist on the dashboard, causing it to stop skipping momentarily.
“—k the spell of aging…” The speakers rasped out a couple more mangled verses before a sizable pothole jolted the cassette out of alignment, at which point it stopped playing completely. Orwell ejected the tape and tossed it over his shoulder without looking. It bounced around in the backseat a couple times before settling beside a box of cufflinks and some old sandwich wrappers on the floor of the vehicle. He took another brief glimpse at the time before looking up to see an old man covered in rags standing motionless in the middle of the road, staring at him.
Orwell’s eye widened. He honked the horn and slammed his foot down on the breaks as he spun the wheel, causing the car to fishtail uncontrollably. The car skidded recklessly down the street as Orwell attempted to regain control of the vehicle. It jerked to a violent halt within inches of the old man, causing the boxes on the passenger seats to spill their contents everywhere. Orwell clutched the steering wheel between his hands as he struggled to steady his breathing. The smell of burnt rubber filled the air.
After regaining his composure, Orwell wiped the cold sweat from his brow and unbuckled his seat belt. He rolled down the window to face the old man, who still stood silent and unmoved in front of the car.
“Hey you,” he shouted, “What do you think you’re doing out here?”
There was no reply. The man was short and frail and wore a basket of belongings on his back. His face was obscured beneath a brown hood of tattered fabric.
Orwell was dumbfounded; he had not seen another human being out on these streets in quite some time – other than other Dig Sight E-028 workers, that is. The State had originally planned to salvage the ruins of Los Angeles, but after the first cases of Rivetrine poisoning began to surface they branded the area uninhabitable and ordered it evacuated and scrapped for resources.
“Come on, pal. Get out of the street,” Orwell pleaded, “I’m late to work already.”
Still the old man remained silent.
“Hey! I’m talking to you,” Orwell shouted, wrinkling his brow. “I almost hit you with my car. What are you, blind?”
He lifted the old man’s hood with his hand and gasped at the sunken, fogged-white eyes that now beamed back at him. The man’s face was shriveled and covered in atrophied, rotten skin. The flesh of his lips had retreated in places, leaving his teeth visible in the corner of his mouth even with his jaw closed, and his nose was lacking altogether. Orwell had never seen such horrible Rivetrine poisoning; it must have been a miracle that he had survived Dredge Day in the first place. Shocked, he struggled to speak.
“L-listen,” he stuttered, “I—“
The man slowly raised one of his putrescent hands and placed a skeletal finger on Orwell’s lip, silencing him. He then paused before shakily moving his hand along Orwell’s skin, feeling the sunken cavity of Orwell’s blind eye and the thin strands of hair on his balding head. A smile grew upon the old man’s lips, his yellowed teeth visible through the rotting hole in his mouth. He wrapped his hands around the sides of Orwell’s bewildered face, his thumbs placed upon the corners of his lips.
“Shush now. Quiet yourself,” the old man cooed, “Your ascension has yet to come.”
The words creaked from his mouth like a parched cedar floor. He removed the basket from his back and rummaged through it on the unpaved road before withdrawing a jagged shard of purple glass from within and placing it in Orwell’s palm.
“But do not fret, surface-walker,” he said. “For you are a child of His domain.”
With that the old man placed the basket back upon his boney shoulders and shuffled slowly out of the road and disappeared into an alleyway set between two brokenly leaning hospital buildings.# # # # # # # # # # # # # # #
“So then he just wandered off?”
“Yeah, it was the weirdest thing. Almost hit the nut with my car.”
Orwell took a bite of his sandwich. He sat eating on a bench overlooking the craterous mineshafts of Dig Site E-028, joined by his co-diggers Gregory and Bernhard, Laura’s brother. The site had used to be a Four Seasons hotel, but now all that remained of the original structure was a dilapidated red wrought-iron frame. Mine carts poured in and out of the holes of the quarry – some carrying loose earth and scrap metal, others carrying treasures like film reels, art pieces and expensive jewelry that had been exhumed from submerged luxury homes and were to be shipped off to various museums and government archives. Bernhard sat on a separate bench and quietly listened to the two rant on, staring off into the quarry and taking the occasional swig from his hip flask.
“Y’think he meant anything by that ‘time has yet to come’ bullshit?”
“I don’t know Greg. The guy had clearly lost his marbles a long time ago.”
“Heh,” Gregory let a sly grin form in the corner of his face, taking a swig from a beer bottle, “You know how you wretches can be sometimes.”
Orwell smiled and shot him a knowing glare.
“Yeah, but at least this wretch ain’t still single. Heck Greg, I can’t picture the last time I’ve seen you with a woman!”
Gregory, a wretch himself, chuckled heartily. He was a large man with broad shoulders and three chins, and was covered with blistering yellow swellings from head to toe.
“Well looks have never exactly been my thing, I suppose. That Laura chick you’ve been seeing is pretty fine though – Hey Bernie, your family’s got good genes!”
Bernhard got up from the bench and began to walk back into the quarry without speaking a word. Gregory sighed.
“Well, I suppose lunch break’s about over anyhow. We should probably get back to the holes.”
The two wretches followed Bernhard back down the dirt ramp into the quarry and joined him at the gear shed. There they picked up their equipment: padded gloves, headlamps, two-way radios, and emergency flares. Gas masks were required within the deeper tunnels, where pockets of Rivetrine gas could still be found oozing its way out of the drills. Still, the State Mining Co. forbid anyone from traveling that far down for liability reasons, so few diggers saw the point of wearing them. The workforce of Dig Site E-028 functioned to perform three primary tasks: digging, stabilizing, and collecting. Orwell, Gregory and Bernhard together formed Dig Team 4, one of seven that operated within the site.
Gregory reached into the equipment shed and pulled out a large shovel and strapped it to his back. He shouted at Bernhard, who was busy refastening his steel-toe boots, and tossed a smaller shovel in his direction. Bernhard gave a small nod to Gregory as he picked it up and fastened it to his back, then headed off into one of the mines. A piece of scrap metal with a white number ‘4’ painted onto it was bolted above the entrance to the tunnel. Orwell watched as Bernhard headed into the mineshaft and waiting until he was a good distance into the tunnel before speaking.
“Hey, you’re his friend. Has he always been like that?”
Gregory paused for a moment, then reached back into the equipment shed and pulled out a jackhammer.
“Who Bernie? Shit, at least for a good couple of years now. Ever since his convenience store got eaten up in the D-Day quakes that man’s life has gone nothing but downhill.”
He tossed the jackhammer over his shoulder and began to fasten his chinstrap. Gregory was already used to the life of a miner – he had used to work up at a copper mine in Soledad before the government bought the company out and repurposed its workers and equipment. Orwell had lost his job in Dredge Day as well; he had held a night shift at some downtown café, a job he had never really cared for. His real dream was to become a famous Hollywood writer and would often be guilty of offering his customers a “free screenplay and smile with every order,” his name and contact information painted on the front page. Needless to say, with Hollywood in ruins, Orwell thought it was about time for him to set his sights on a new career path. After thirteen months of fruitless job-hunting, Gregory wrote him a reference and got him the job at the State Mining Co. in return for a six-pack of his favorite Mexican beer. He was assigned as a “Ripper,” the member of the team in charge of breaking through any walls or sheet metal from submerged buildings that stood in the Dig Team’s tunneling path.
Orwell reached into his locker and pulled out his dirt-caked Pickaxe Ripping Tool – or P.A.R.T. for short. The P.A.R.T. was T-shaped and looked more-or-less like a standard pickaxe, except it was entirely made of gunmetal steel and had a saw blade that took the place of one of the two pickaxe spikes. Its elongated handle was flattened at the base and could be used as a spade to move dirt and loose rocks. He always kept “Dorothy” locked away with his other belongings during lunch break so that no one else could snatch it and had wrapped some neon orange electric tape around its hilt to mark it as his. He fastened it to his work belt along with a couple flares and strapped his mask to his face.
“Well, we better get in there,” he said, the sound of his voice muffled by the rubber gas mask. The two men shut the locker and shed doors and followed Bernhard into the shadowy depths of Dig Tunnel 4.
Tunnel 4 had already been well under excavation when Bernhard and Orwell joined the State Mining Co. Gregory had been one of the first to dig into its trenches; Orwell had asked him what had happened to the other members of Dig Team 4 that they had replaced, but could never get a straight answer from him. He had just looked away and grown silent for a while.
“Well, let’s just say this job ain’t without its occupational hazards,” he said with a nervous chuckle before quickly changing the subject. There were plenty of “occupational hazards” to be had in Dig Tunnel 4, which was built to gain access to a series of submerged commercial office buildings. When the drills had fallen out of the sky, one landed directly on top of an accounting firm headquarters building, boring through its center and sinking it underground. A bridge had been constructed to walk across the abyssal opening and one of Orwell’s first duties had been to lay iron tracks along its path so that mine carts could cross it. Orwell held his breath he walked across the bridge with his equipment. He held his neck straight and faced only to the other side of the bridge, trying not to look down – trying not to think of the horrible fate of the men and women who used to work there, many of whose remains assuredly still sat crushed and marred beneath the rubble of the lower levels far below him. Dusty rays shone in through the hole in the roof fourteen stories above him. The air was stale with earth and rusty, metallic death and no noise could be heard except the thuds of the two men’s footsteps and the occasional unnerving echo of a loose pebble falling off into the pit below.
Gregory and Orwell were almost at the end of the bridge when they heard a roaring boom coming from the tunnel in front of them. The noise shook the building’s open cavity and caused a smattering of dirt to shower down upon them. Orwell crouched down and grabbed the metal tracks that lay across the makeshift bridge, waiting for the thunderous echo of the blast to subside. Gregory just stood there and snickered at him, his pneumatic drill still rested securely over his right shoulder. He lifted up his two-way radio to his mouth.
“Hey Bernie,” he spoke into the device, “that blast really shook us up at the Ol’ Maw. Give us a warning next time you go blowing holes in the walls, yeah?”
“My mistake,” replied an almost inaudible voice through a static haze, “I assumed with the pace you and Orwell were taking in getting here that you would still be out of the radius of the blast.”
Gregory let out a complaisant chortle, holding down the ‘talk’ button so that Bernhard could hear him on the other end.
“Apology accepted then. We’ll be down there in a couple clicks.”
Gregory put away his radio, shaking his head in blasé disapproval.
“Hey Orwell, I’m gonna go back surface side and grab a Stab Team to lay some support beams. Get yourself up off those tracks and go meet up with Bernie to help him load some muck into the carts, will ya?”
Orwell nodded and lifted himself from the ground. He dusted some rubble off of his helmet and shoulders before continuing across the bridge and into the adjacent mine shaft. The tunnel’s cavernous walls were lined with wooden planks that were systematically installed by the Stabilization Team members. Small electric lamps hung from every fourth plank, but their dim glow was barely enough to navigate the tenebrous arteries of Dig Tunnel 4.
He paused along a wall brace to rest for a moment and switch on his helmet’s floodlight. The white beam of dusty light revealed the walls of the tunnel in front of him, but did little to abate the inescapable dread of the cavern’s silent earthen halls. Orwell reached into his pocket and examined the shard of purple glass that the old man had given him; it was thin and triangular with a sharp tip and the edges of the shard had been carefully chipped away to craft a jagged blade on both sides. He looked closer and noticed that a thin hole had been drilled through its widest portion, probably so that it could be worn as a pendant. Shrugging, he placed the shard back into his pocket and continued down the tunnel.
A minute or two later Orwell reached Bernhard, who had already begun shoveling loose dirt into the mine cart a few feet away.
“Well look who finally decided to show up,” Bernhard said expressionlessly.
Bernhard pointed to a large chunk of rock that was wedged into the earthen wall and Orwell obliged by helping to dislodge it with his pickaxe. Bernhard took a swig out of his hip flask. There was a long pause before either of them spoke again.
“Say listen,” Bernhard finally said once the two of them had finished clearing away most of the dirt, “There was something I was meaning to talk to you about. It’s about my sister.”
“Oh, Laura? What a coincidence – I had been meaning to talk to you about her too,” Orwell said, pleased to finally have the opportunity to speak with Bernhard in private. Bernhard looked far more reluctant to engage in such a conversation, but wanted to have it nonetheless.
“We were actually thinking of moving away for a while, maybe to the other coast, and were wondering if you would like to—“
Bernhard swallowed his pride and spoke again before Orwell had the chance to continue.
“I don’t want you seeing her anymore.”
Orwell’s jaw dropped; he could hardly believe what he was hearing.
“What? How could you say such a thing?”
“Listen Orwell, you’re a nice guy and my sister likes you. I get that. But do you think the two of you could ever live a normal life together? The two of you could move away to some other city, but you could never escape the looks and stares of passersby.”
Bernhard’s words floated together aimlessly; Orwell could smell the alcohol drenched upon his breath.
“My folks and most of our other blood relatives were all killed on Dredge Day, so she’s all I have left. I won’t sit aside and watch her run off and marry some sterile, repugnant wretch like you.”
Orwell dropped Dorothy and ran at Bernhard screaming, tackling him to the ground. He swung his fist down at his face, but Bernhard blocked it with his hand. He gripped Orwell’s fist and twisted it, causing Orwell to scream out in pain and fall off from on top of him. Bernhard stood up and grabbed his shovel from off the ground. He let his foot fall down hard on Orwell’s gut, knocking the wind out of him.
“I could finish you now, Orwell,” he said, a deranged glare plastered upon his face, “I could kill you here and toss your body in the Maw. No one will ever hear from you again and Laura will be able to live a normal life without you."
Bernhard watched as Orwell writhed in pain on the ground gasping for air. He raised the shovel above his head and prepared to bring it down on him when suddenly he felt the earth sink away beneath his feet. Rocks and dirt fell from the tunnel ceiling as the floor collapsed, giving way to a steep crevasse below. Orwell tried to grasp onto the cart tracks as he felt the ground slip beneath him, but the beams loosened and detached from the earth. He tumbled down the hole, bouncing off the chasm walls like a helpless rag doll. Then suddenly the falling stopped as Orwell collided with the ground with a violent thud. Blood streamed down his neck and shoulders and hands and legs. He felt as if he was still falling.
Dust began to settle; he could make out shapes through the debris. His helmet lamp’s flickering light illuminated the room. It hurt to turn his head. Out of the corner of his squinting eye he saw something move; he saw Bernhard. Orwell slid his body against the cavern wall. The splintered cart tracks, the spilled mine cart, the spilled blood, twitching legs attached to a heavy chest attached to—to…
The room whirled away into nothing. Dusty dreams to cloud the ephemeral dark. His head hit the ground. It felt nice.# # # # # # # # # # # # # # #
Heaven Lord of iron and rust,
Grant us the strength to do what we must.
Two years have passed since you soared over our land,
And rained down upon it with your bountiful hands.
Two sinful years we have sat in this rift,
Awaiting your message. Your blessing, Your gift.
Now once again we may rejoice and may sing,
And worship you still – Our new Surface King.
# # # # # # # # # # # # # # #
As Orwell drifted in and out of consciousness, he felt multiple pairs of malnourished hands pass over his body. Skeletal fingers ran along his face and his chest with the consistency of overworked sandpaper. He could feel them search his pockets and chatter amongst themselves. He felt his helmet unfasten and drift away from him, as did his gas mask, then begin to be dragged backwards by his wrists down the dark, dirt-walled cavern.
Orwell moved his lips, but could not recall himself uttering a word. Hands with damp cloths came now and disrobed him, then sponged his battered flesh. Others came and wrapped strips of soft linen around his open wounds. Then he was dragged again, naked and still unable to open his eyes. Orwell sensed his environment change as he was pulled from chamber to chamber. He no longer felt dirt beneath his feet, but a carpeted floor. The echoing sounds of drums and rhythmic chanting began to resound slowly in the distance as he was dragged toward a larger, open chamber. He heard the crackle of burning wood. The scent of the flames was a welcome substitution to the stale smell of earth that had long filled his nostrils.
The drumming and chanting thundered louder and louder until he sensed that he was at last at their source. His eyes fluttered open for a moment and gazed up at the silhouette of a familiar bridge hanging far overhead. Faint, dusty light poured into the chamber through a hole in the ceiling a quarter mile above him. Orwell’s eyes rolled back into the rear of his skull. He felt as more dry, frail hands came and lifted him up a series of stairs and sat him on a large soft chair.
“Awaken, our Surface King,” a familiarly cracking voice uttered.
Orwell opened his eyes to find the withered old man staring at him within inches of his face. Orwell looked down; he had been placed on an office armchair on top a pile of cubical walls that had been arranged to resemble a staircase. A purple, glass pendant had been tied with a string around his neck. The old man bowed at his feet, as did dozens of similarly robed wretches who were all positioned in a semicircle surrounding the makeshift throne. Beyond them rested a giant pneumatic drill, which had been decorated at its base with candles and shards of colored glass. Women in colorful garb sauntered over to him carrying bowls of fruit and incense. As they placed them at his feet Orwell caught small glimpses of their withered, emaciated flesh and lifeless white eyes.
“Oh Heaven Lord, he who has led us to see without sight, at last you have returned to our land in mortal form. We live to please you and do as you command,” the old man piously enunciated, “How will you have us serve you?”
A smile grew upon Orwell’s face. He thought of all the times he had been mocked for being different – for his putrid skin and balding scalp. Perhaps he could grow used to this life as King of the wretches…at least for a day or two.
“Silence mortals,” he shouted, relishing the power of his words as they echoed off the cavern walls, “Yes, it is I, your Heaven Lord. I have returned to you as a testament to your faith and zealous prayer. As my first order as your new King, I decree that—“
The sound of metal being shredded interrupted Orwell’s sentence. He heard Gregory emit a loud battle cry as he charged shoulder-first through an adjacent cubicle wall and immediately began slicing through the robe-clad wretches with the business end of Dorothy’s saw blade. Orwell just stood flabbergasted and speechless as half a dozen other Dig Site workers stampeded through the opening behind him and joined him in slaughtering the worshipers with shovels and pickaxes. Within seconds they were all dead, including the old man, who now lay eviscerated at the base of Orwell’s throne. Gregory walked up the cubical steps and triumphantly wiped the blood from off his brow.
“Hello there, Orwell,” he said to him cheerily, “Fancy seeing you here! It’s a good thing you left all those fires along the way, or else we probably never would have found you.”
Orwell stared blankly forward, slack-jawed and pale in the face.
“Oh say, have you seen Bernie? I suppose he’s down here somewhere as well.”
Gregory took a moment to scan Orwell up and down with his eyes. He frowned, raising an eyebrow.
“…Why are you naked?”
The Maw of Los Angeles