Rue Logan’s work boots squelched in the sticky, red mess. The puddle had grown from a few drops trickled off the edge of a gurney to a pool the size of an area rug. Moments before, those liters of blood had been pumping through the body of a healthy young man. At least, he’d been healthy until someone’s knife sunk into his flesh.
Once they wheeled his corpse away, Rue stepped 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 was allowed do anything about.
As she stood impotent, mop in hand, those supposed doctors and nurses attempted to staunch the blood flow to no avail. She longed to push them all 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 do the work she had trained herself to do. Her fingers itched to save a life.
She had tried once. A woman in the throes of a complicated birth. She’d pushed the doctor aside and began the work she knew how to do.
He’d called security.
After hours in a tiny room, playing dumb and weaving a skein of lies, they threatened to disappear her if she attempted to do any job but her own again. If the DOE thought she should’ve been a doctor, they would’ve made her one, they said. The DOE certainly knew better than some janitor about who was best suited to administer treatment to the sick and needy.
After she had been released, she learned both mother and child died.
Jamming her mop into the bucket with more force than was necessary, Rue began the job she was assigned to do. With each slap of the mop, the floor became a shade lighter. As she removed liters of stained water from the floor, the blood filled her up to overflowing. She wouldn’t have been surprised to find her face flushed and her eyes red with someone else’s life.
“Why do you put yourself through this?” Kyle asked her one day as he snuck her leftovers from the cafeteria. “Go home. Eat your rations. Accept this life as the one you were meant to live.”
But she couldn’t. Accepting that life was as good as it ever would be horrified her more than the idea of what would happen if she ever got caught.
Uncle Howard had hidden himself well, but they caught him. No one knew about the hours he’d spent tinkering in the basement, designing an entire city out of discarded bits. Until the day her father went downstairs.
Rue never found proof her father turned Uncle Howard in. All she’s been told was the time had come for her poor uncle to live on his own. After that, it would’ve been only a matter of time before the DOE caught up with him and discovered his inequality. Whether a week from then or a month or later, Rue never knew.
Father told her the DOE knew best and he was happy about it. Clearly, she was Unequal enough without her uncle’s influence. They were saving her from… Well, no one knew for sure what the fate of the Unequal was. Everyone just knew they didn’t want to be disappeared.
From that point on, Rue’s father watched her for any sign she was becoming increasingly 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 strips of sticky gray.
“It’s for your own good.”
Hours later, when Rue and her mother were alone, her mother would tell her, “He’s afraid.” Mother didn’t need to say of what. Rue knew. She was afraid of the same things. She was simply more afraid of becoming like her peers.
She would march off every morning to be educated, falling into step beside children who were far more Equal than she’d ever be. Their slack jaws and dull eyes gave her greater nightmares than reading Dr. Jekyll before bed. But nothing sent terror through her faster than the idea she would turn into one of 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 wasn’t that Rue couldn’t mimic what the teachers wanted. She simply couldn’t force herself flow into the mold they’d cast for her.
“Citizen Janitor?” said a stern voice beside her. “Are you ill?”
Rue was, but not for the 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 she’d once read.
“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 this, combined with her previous infractions, could amount to enough of a reason to come under their eternal vigilance.
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. Rue 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 replaced mop heads, the floor was as clean as it ever would be—the white tiles tinged slightly pink, the grout tinged faintly brown. Eventually, the pink would turn brown, too. In Rue’s world, the absence of light wasn’t blackness. It was a dim shade of dingy brown.
The emergency doors opened several times throughout her shift. Another ambulance bringing more carnage. Another of the walking wounded seeking help. Each wrecked body shoveled into the hospital’s gullet. Each person swallowed whole. Most who came through the emergency doors were carried out the back of the building. Where the unfortunate dead went from there, Rue didn’t want to think about. Those who survived the excellent treatment they received staggered home, only to return another day with a different malady.
While she continued to slap her mop on the grimy floor and grind her teeth in utter impotence.
At the end of the day, after hours of cleaning while she ignored the screams around her, Rue slunk out the employee exit and around to the side of the hospital. She slipped through an impossibly narrow crevice between two oddly shaped brick additions into a courtyard, long overgrown. Some nights, she lay on the ground and looked up at the starless sky. Tonight, she was too tired to partake in even that small wonder.
As the residents of her world were safe at their assigned homes, eating their assigned rations and slumbering in their assigned housing, Rue popped open one loose basement window and squirmed back inside the building she hated during the day. As impotent as she was from daybreak to nightfall, she was 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 overtook her. No one would even think about it, because the general populace wouldn’t consider the possibility any Citizen might risk everything the way she did. Being caught out as Unequal was the ultimate terror.
Rue pulled on a pair of scrubs she’d stolen from the hospital laundry, smiling for the first time all day. Tonight, she would check on a 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 since they were admitted. If everything went well, they would be released before another evening passed.
Clipping on the false identification she’d 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, despite the DOE’s insistence that all men were to be treated as Equals, she would now receive a measure of respect not afforded to a janitor.
She rode the elevator up to the lobby floor as always. And as always, she expected to step forth and blend into the crowd. Every other night, she would leave 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 she recognized. “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. “I was only making a jest,” she said as she stepped aside. “Run along if you think you’re so much better.”
She was so much better, but Rue 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 manage the people around her as easily.
“Citizen Doctor Mason,” the young girl on nightshift said as Rue entered the third floor station.
“Citizen Nurse,” she answered. Actual doctors, she had 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.”
“On the floor or in the hospital?” Rue didn’t want to think about the obvious answer.
“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 woman 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 voice to this person wouldn’t do anyone a damn bit of good. She reminded herself the girl was a product of her environment, of this world they all lived in. She 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. Lingering there was wasted 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, even as Citizen Doctor Mason, 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,” Rue said, snatching the offensive thing away before the woman could react. Everything in it was exactly as the nurse had said, with one exception. The name on the chart wasn’t Houston. “You must really need a time off interval.”
The woman didn’t look up from her work, which amounted to checking boxes on forms Rue suspected had never been read. “I don’t see how my work schedule has any bearing—”
“The name on this chart. It isn’t Houston. Either you are lax in your work,” she said, slapping the chart down in front of the nurse, “or you are unable to read. In either case, the DOE might be interested in your performance tonight.” Rue hated using the DOE to put fear in others, especially when she was so afraid of them herself, but she was so disgusted with the woman’s uncaring laziness, she couldn’t help herself.
“Report me if you have to,” said the nurse. “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 then would get her in trouble. She’d already escaped one near miss at 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 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 meant 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 did know the child would never be allowed to mourn his mother. Birth, death, illness, health. In the eyes of the Equality Laws, they were all the same. Equal.
Hope you enjoyed it. Won't be long now, good lord willin' and the creek don't rise.