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One last swallow of dry gin, and I’m trying to ignore the layer of residue at the bottom of my glass. I don’t usually drink, but on a day like today, when I have to suffer the antics and superstitions of so many idiotic characters, I have to make an exception. I cringe, either from the grime in my glass or from the burning in my throat. Michael, my closest friend, sits opposite me in this dingy, densely packed bar. Hopeless drunks crowd our table, singing stupid songs and squawking clichés about luck and fate.
The rear of one drunkard collides with my elbow and I drop my glass. It shatters on the floor. I shout at him, but he can’t hear me over the surrounding revelry. Michael receives a stranger’s elbow to the eye. “Let’s get out of here, yeah?” I shout over the boisterous crowd. “The lottery announcement is in an hour.”
He suggests we walk to his place. We shove our way through the mob, equip our conical breathing masks and venture into the hazy outside. The pollution is exceptionally bad this evening; I have trouble seeing my own hand when held at arm’s length. People are darting about like inmates escaped from the asylum, whooping and dancing in the street. The combination of low visibility and drunken celebration makes for less-than-graceful pedestrians, so we bump elbows with I-don’t-know-how-many strangers on the way. I imagine them all covered in dirt and germs and urine.
“God,” I wonder aloud, “How pathetic can these people be?”
Michael shrugs. One man dressed in a tattered suit and without his breathing mask stumbles drunkenly toward us, singing and hiccupping.
“Good God, man!” I shout at him. “Do you want to catch the Bug? Put on your mask!” “I won’t have to worry about that much longer, brother!” He dismisses me. “I’m winning that lottery tonight, I can feel it!”
I scoff. It amazes me that people could be so deluded. That man’s chances of winning the lottery tonight are only slightly better than his chances of being struck in the head by a small iron-nickel meteorite. Even so, the announcement will be made in less than an hour and one exceedingly lucky person will—against all odds—be given the opportunity to go and live under the protection of the dome amongst all the rich and powerful folk, to drink clean water and breathe clean air, to get away from this place.
We climb the steps of Michael’s apartment building—a filthy, poorly constructed stack of closet-sized boxes filled to the brim with dim humans, breeding and feeding and defecating. There are always children crying, couples arguing violently, dogs warding off imagined intruders. The walls are paper-thin. Inside every room I hear people fantasizing about winning the lottery, about living inside the dome.
Michael’s apartment: the inside is dreadful (just like every other apartment in the building), but it’s got enough books to make up for its lack of aesthetic appeal. We come here to read often, if the baby next door isn’t screaming too loudly and if the men upstairs aren’t having sex too aggressively and if the schizophrenic woman across the hall isn’t cursing too vehemently. Michael has an excellent book collection. I admire him very much for it.
Two more shots of gin and we loll onto shoddy, under-stuffed chairs. Every lottery announcement night for the past half-dozen years we’ve sat here, mocking the simpletons outside for their naivety. So many times we’ve criticized the fascists in their domes, who fucked this world beyond repair then sealed themselves away and left us to fend for ourselves on an overpopulated, scorched Earth; who insult the millions outside with this annual lottery, feigning benevolence to make it seem as though we actually have a chance to escape this hell when, realistically, we do not.
Michael stands and wobbles across the room to stare out his window. Even with so many pollutants in the air, the faint glow of the far-off domed city permeates the haze and late-evening dark. He is still and silent. There, watching Michael as he stares out into the towering heaps of trash and as the festivities outside reach their most raucous, I see, amongst all the dirt and grime and filth, the tiniest gleam in his eyes.
“What if one of us wins the lottery tonight?” he asks me quietly. I start to laugh, but he gestures for me to shut up. I do. “I know the odds are unbelievable,” he says. “And I know it’s silly to even consider. But what if the voice on that loudspeaker names the winner tonight, and that name is yours? What if you had the chance to leave this place, to go someplace where people don’t have to worry about the pollution or the toxic water or the Bug? What would you do?”
Michael is close to tears. What would I do?
“I would leave without ever looking back.”
We sit in silence for a long time, Michael staring out the window and me staring at him. Fireworks and gunshots ring out across the slums. Musicians play cheerful music. People drunk and high are laughing and singing. Millions of poor, dirty fools are happy, hopeful. All but one will be disappointed in a few short moments, but for now they are joyful in a world where joy is rare. For a moment, I understand them, foolish as they may be.
The voice plays out over the loudspeaker. A great sigh resounds throughout the slums. And for a moment, we don’t realize they’ve called Michael’s name. And then, clear-headed and silent, Michael turns and leaves the apartment without looking back.
And I am a fool—happy, hopeful.
Josh Cunningham is a member of the Cherokee Nation and lifelong Kansas constituent. He is studying environmental science at Haskell Indian Nations University. Josh hopes to eventually become a researcher and communicator of the sciences. He enjoys writing as a welcome reprieve from all of the reading and learning and stress that goes along with such an aspiration.