Rue Logan’s work boots squelched in the sticky red mess. Only minutes before, the puddle had grown from a few drops trickled off the edge of a gurney to the size of an area rug. Moments before that, those drops had been pumping through the body of a healthy young man—healthy until someone else’s steel sunk into his flesh.
She watched as they wheeled away his corpse before stepping forward to clean up the mess made both by his leaking life and by the incompetence of the ones who were supposed to save him. As she pushed her bucket through the puddle, she hated the fact that this was the only part of the mess she could do anything about.
As she watched the doctor trying ineffectively to staunch the bloodflow, she longed to push him aside. She knew how to create a simple tourniquet. She knew how to hold a blood vessel silent while hands worked to repair damage. Her hands itched to push the doctor away. Her fingers itched to sew a simple stitch that would save a life.
She tried once. Then it had been a woman in the throes of a complicated birth. All Rue would’ve had to do was step in and two lives would have continued past that day. She pushed the doctor aside then, and began the work she knew how to do. He called security.
After hours of lying and playing dumb, they let her go with a warning to stick to her own job. If the DOE thought she should’ve been a doctor, they would’ve made her one, they said. The DOE certainly knows better than some janitor about who can best administer medicine. When she was released, she learned both mother and child died.
Such stupidity. Such waste.
Jamming her mop into the bucket with more force than was necessary, Rue began the job she was told to do. With each slap of the mop, the floor became a shade lighter, but as the blood was cleaned from the floor, it filled her up to overflowing. She wouldn’t have been surprised to find her face flushed with it, her eyes red with someone else’s life.
“Why do you put yourself through this?” Kyle told her one day as he snuck her leftovers from the cafeteria. “Go home. Eat your rations. Accept this life is the one you were meant to live.”
But she couldn’t accept it. Accepting this life was as good as it was ever going to get was almost as horrifying as the thought of what would happen if she ever got caught.
Her Uncle Howard had hidden himself so well. The hours he spent tinkering in the basement, designing an entire city out of bits no one else wanted, no one knew about except Rue and her mother. Until the day her father went downstairs.
Rue never had proof her father turned Uncle Howard in, but she did know he was shoved out of the house to live on his own. After that, it was only a matter of time before the DOE caught up with him. Whether he was taken away directly by them, or they got him later, Rue never knew.
Father told her he was doing the right thing. She was Unequal enough without her uncle’s influence. He was saving her from… Well, no one knew for sure what the fate of the Unequal were. Everyone just knew they didn’t want to be disappeared, too.
From that point on, Rue’s father watched her for any sign she was becoming Unequal. He held her in front of the videoset for hours on end. When she grew too large to hold, he taped her in place with long strands of sticky gray.
“It’s for your own good,” he would always say.
“He’s afraid,” her mother would say hours later when they were alone and Rue was free. She didn’t need to say of what. Rue knew. She was afraid of the same things. She was just afraid of becoming like her peers even more.
Every day she would march off to be educated, falling into step beside children who were far more Equal than she’d ever be. Their slack jaws and dull eyes scared her more than reading Dr. Jekyll before bed. But never more than the idea she would become like them. When grades came in, her papers would bleed red—marked not where her answers were wrong but where her answers differed from everyone else’s. It’s not that Rue couldn’t mimic what the teachers wanted. She just couldn’t make herself flow into the mold they wanted.
“Citizen Janitor?” said a stern voice beside her. “Are you ill?”
She was, but not for the same reason the nurse thought. She was sick to death of pretending she was the same. She was tired of hiding her light under a bushel, as the elders put it.
“No, Citizen Nurse.”
“Then get back to work before someone calls the DOE.”
The Department of Equalization was too busy to worry about one daydreaming janitor, but Rue couldn’t take the chance that her previous infractions would amount to enough of a reason to become noticeable to the them. She slapped her mop onto the already wet floor, raining pink droplets across the nurse’s shoes.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, but the woman was already headed off to torment some other person—most likely a patient. She watched the thin figure stride along the hall, focused on something ahead of her and nothing at all.
After three changes of water and two mop heads, the floor was as clean as it ever was—the white tiles tinged slightly pink, the grout tinged faintly brown. The pink would turn brown eventually, too. In Rue’s world, the absence of substance wasn’t black. It was a dim shade of dingy brown.
The emergency doors opened several times through her cleaning, each time regurgitating another wrecked person into the hospital’s gullet. Each person swallowed whole. Most who came through those doors left through the back. Where they went from there, Rue knew but she didn’t like to think about. Those who survived the excellent treatment they received, staggered home only to return another day with another malady.
While she slapped her mop on the dingy floor and ground her teeth in utter impotence.
At the end of the day, after hours of pointless mopping while she ignored the screams around her, Rue slunk out the employee exit and around to the back. She slipped through an impossibly thin crevice between two oddly shaped brick additions into a courtyard, long overgrown. Some nights, she lay on the ground and looked up at the dearth of stars. Tonight she was too tired to partake in even that small wonder.
As the rest of her world slumbered in their assigned housing, eating their assigned rations, Rue popped open one loose basement window and pulled herself back into the space she hated during the day. As impotent as she felt from daybreak to nightfall, she felt twice as effective in the dark. In the dark, no one saw the janitor from dayshift. No one wondered why she slipped into patients’ rooms, adjusting the charts with a deft hand. No one knew how many small mercies she accomplished in the hours before exhaustion took her. Even she had lost count.
No one knew because she had lost count, and because no one ever thought one small Citizen would chance being caught out as Unequal.
As Rue pulled on a pair of scrubs she’d stolen from the hospital laundry, she smiled for the first time all day. Tonight she would check on the mother on the third floor and her baby on the fifth. Neither one had been expected to live through their first night. This night made their fourth night, and if everything went well, they would be released before another evening passed.
Clipping on the false identification she created in a different corner of the basement, she stepped toward the elevator she didn’t dare use during the day. No more ‘Citizen Janitor Logan’. Now Rue was ‘Citizen Doctor Mason’ and, as Equal as all men were, she still received a measure of respect not afforded to a janitor.
She took the elevator up to the lobby floor like always. And like always, she expected to step forth and blend into the crowd. Every other night, she would step off the elevator, cross to the cafeteria and buy a coffee. Beverage in hand, she would take the elevator once more, but this time heading upwards like any respected Citizen would expect.
The doors opened and she took a step forward. The chest she ran into was a surprise, but nothing she couldn’t overcome. She mumbled an apology and pretended to look at her watch. Nothing out of the ordinary.
“Slumming, Citizen Doctor?” said a voice. “I didn’t know patients could be found in the basement.”
Rue kept her eyes focused on a point behind the nurse’s head, but the woman may have already recognized her from earlier. “Pressed the wrong floor,” she said, letting the words slip out as tersely as she heard any other doctor speak. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have rounds.”
The nurse cleared her throat and stepped aside. “I was only making a jest,” she said as she stepped aside. “Run along if you think you’re so much better.”
Rue knew she was so much better, but she didn’t speak another word. She simply brushed past the offensive little person and went on her carefully orchestrated way. Too bad she couldn’t orchestrate the people around her as easily.
“Citizen Doctor Mason,” the young girl on nightshift said as she entered the third floor station.
“Citizen Nurse,” she answered. It wasn’t that she couldn’t remember the redhead’s name. Actual doctors, she learned, never addressed anyone beneath them by their names. Occupation mattered. Names did not. “The chart for Citizen Mother Houston.”
The redhead’s pale skin grew pink. “She’s no longer with us.”
She didn’t want to think of the obvious answer. “On the floor or in the hospital?”
“She passed onto the next existence this morning.”
“And her baby?” Rue’s voice shook. She shouldn’t be asking questions. She should just accept the death of the mother and hope the premature infant lived long enough without his mother to be placed into some kind of home. She shouldn’t care, but she couldn’t help herself. They were her patients and she wasn’t ready to accept whatever fate chose for them.
“How would I know?” the nurse said. “We don’t have babies on this floor.”
Rue sucked in one deep breath and held it. Raising her tone to this person wouldn’t do her a damn bit of good. She just reminded herself the girl was a product of her environment, of this world they all lived in, and let out her breath in a long slow whoosh. “I realize that, but the charts are connected for a reason, Citizen Nurse. The child’s welfare is directly tied to its mother’s.”
“You’ll have to call up to five. They would know more…”
She didn’t bother listening to the rest. Her feet were already dragging her toward the elevator again. Waiting here was wasting time when she could be up two floors in less than a minute.
“Citizen Doctor… Mason, is it?” said the pudgy woman at the fifth floor station. “Who are you inquiring after?”
“Citizen Baby Houston. He was in intensive infant care. His mother… She died this morning…”
“He died,” the duty nurse said without a trace of regret.
“Died? How? He was improving when I left…” Except Rue wasn’t supposed to be on this floor. Not that it mattered. She wasn’t really supposed to be anywhere.
“I don’t know anything about that.” The nurse pulled a clipboard from the wall and scanned down a list of the recently deceased. “Says here he was blue when the night nurse tried to give him his morning feeding.” She shrugged. “Nothing to be done, so we sent him off to the body room.”
“Let me see the chart,” she said, snatching the offending thing away from the nurse before she could react. Everything in it was exactly as the nurse has said with one exception. The name on the chart wasn’t Houston. “You must really need a vacation.”
“I don’t see how my work schedule has any bearing…” The woman didn’t look up from her work, which amounted to checking boxes on forms Rue suspected had never been read.
“The name on this chart. It isn’t Houston. Either you are lax in your work,” she said, “or you are unable to read. In either case, the DOE might be interested in your performance tonight.” Rue hated to use the DOE to put fear in others, especially when she was so afraid of them herself. When the nurse seemed unconcerned, she wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or just disgusted.
“Report me if you have to. Lord knows disappeared can’t be worse than this godforsaken place.”
Rue’s hands clenched at her sides where the nurse couldn’t see. Showing any emotion right now would only get her in trouble. She’d already escaped one near miss on the elevator. She didn’t need another unfortunate encounter. It wouldn’t do that poor baby any good and it wouldn’t help the dozens of other patients who still needed her.
“Thank you,” she said, trying to keep the frustration from her voice. She must not have succeeded because the infant care nurse raised one eyebrow.
“Babies are born every day. Mothers die every day,” the woman said. “Why should these two be more important that the others? We’re all Equal.”
Which Rue took to mean none of them were important enough to care about or mourn. Hell, she didn’t even know if the poor mother had been allowed to hold her own child. She knew the child would never be allowed to mourn his mother. Birth, death, illness, health. In the eyes of the law, they were all the same. Equal.