The winds continued to blow well into the night, the shrill howling no less present throughout the ARCH. Residents attempted to sleep through the din, most of them in some semblance of consciousness. The dining hall was nearly empty despite the imposed insomnia, most staying with their sleeping arrangements for fear they’d lose a prime spot if they moved. Jo and Donner had no lines to bypass, and went straight to the front for their meal ration. The clerk looked at Jo and nodded, Jo picked up a tray and continued. Donner held up his wrist, showing the metal bracelet with the number ‘2’ stamped on it.
The clerk, an elderly woman with thick glasses, frowned. “This ain’t second shift,” she said in a gravelly drawl.
“I was working with—“
“This ain’t second shift!” the woman repeated. “Skedaddle!” She waved Donner off.
Jo double-backed with her tray. “He’s with me.”
“D’I look like I care?” asked the woman, still glaring at Donner. “This ain’t second shift!”
Jo positioned herself between Donner and the clerk. “Madre, necesito que haga mi trabajo para mantenerte con vida. El está comiendo conmigo. Ahora. ¿Entiendes?”
The clerk looked at Jo. “¿Por qué es especial?”
“Porque me salvó la vida.”
The clerk nodded and waved Jo along. As Donner tried to pass, she held out her hand and stopped him. “Y’ save her life?”
Donner nodded curtly. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And y’ helpin’ her?” Donner nodded. “Doin’ what?”
“Um, moving girders and drilling holes. Whatever Jo needs me to do.”
“Yer her pack horse.” Donner looked at Jo, who shrugged her shoulders and offered a “don’t look at me” expression. Donner looked back at the clerk, who thrust out a second metal bracelet. “Don’ lose this,” she said. “Y’ gonna need ev’ry bite y’ can get.”
“Thank you.” Donner bowed slightly.
“Don’ thank me,” the clerk shook her head, moving a small rock with a number from one bin to the next. “Thank God y’ still alive, and th’ White Lady f’ not comin’ f’ yer soul.”
Donner walked off after Jo, who had already gotten her rations and was headed for the long makeshift benches where everyone sat to eat. Most of the people were parents with their younger children who were also unable to sleep, helping them eat their rations. A few were the token elderly, a handful of folks past their seventies who had, so far, managed to duck the Banshee’s gaze.
Jo picked at her mushrooms and asparagus. All but one half of one of her potatoes had long since disappeared. Donner sat down next to her. “Mushrooms are barely edible when they’re drowned in melted mozzarella, pepperoni, peppers, and anchovies, layered over spicy tomato sauce on a thick, doughy crust. But raw on a plate?” She moved them around. “I’m sure there was something in the Geneva Convention against this.”
“Hey, Jo, what’s with the clerk?” asked Donner. The clerk made sure that people didn’t get their rations before they were supposed to, ensuring a steady use of foodstuffs, and that people didn’t get more than their allotted share. They also dictated who got single or multiple rations — residents on hard labour often got multiples to keep up their energy. One did not argue with the clerks. “What did you tell her?”
“I needed you and that if she didn’t let you in, I would do something drastic,” said Jo. She looked around to see if anyone wasn’t going to eat their potatoes. But everyone did. When all you got was three potatoes, eight spears of asparagus, and ten mushrooms per ration, you ate everything. Fights broke out over a leftover chunk. She prodded the mushrooms again.
“What’s the White Lady?”
Jo looked up from her fungus. “She mentioned the Lady?”
“Yeah. What’s that?”
“A legend. The North Rim is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a woman who died here a hundred years ago, looking for souls to take with her. She screams when the winds are blowing really hard.”
“I thought that was just the wind going over the surface of the ARCH?”
Jo smiled. “Might be. Might not be. Who knows, Donner? We’re trapped inside an aluminum box. We can’t see what’s on the outside.”
“Other than certain death?” Donner asked.
“Trust me, kid, there’s a lot of things out there that’ll kill you,” she muttered, turning over the mushrooms for the tenth time.
“You don’t like mushrooms?” asked Donner, tossing his down in a few swift strokes.
“Hate ‘em,” she said. She held her two-tined fork like a shiv.
“You need to eat them!” Donner admonished. “You need your protein!”
“You sound like Anita,” muttered Jo.
“One of the gardeners. She and her team grow all this food. We’d be starving to death without it. You saw them when we were taking the girders down next to the reservoir.”
“Oh, right!” said Donner. His face contorted as a thought crossed through. “How do they grow mushrooms down there?”
Jo looked at Donner like he’d just spawned another head. “Seriously? Where do you think mushrooms come from?”
“Um… well, I know they used to grow in forests?”
Jo sat back, insofar as one could sit back while sitting on a bench. “And in the absence of a forest?”
Donner thought. “Dirt?” he asked, with a heavy layering of “I don’t know”.
“A rich compost,” stated Jo. Donner stared back. “Think about it. Where are we going to get compost in here?” Jo waved her arms about at their scrap material surroundings.
“Leftovers?” Donner was grasping, and missing.
Jo frowned. “You ever seen a leftover here?” Donner shook his head. “So, think about it. What goes into a compost?”
“Organic material?” Donner said slowly.
“Uh… the tops of the potato plants?”
Jo rested her head in her hands. “Yes, and what else?”
Donner sounded like he knew, and was actively trying not to say it. Jo looked up at him over her fingertips imploringly. “Manure?” he suggested cautiously.
“Good,” Jo nodded. “And where do we get manure?”
Donner definitely knew the answer, and definitely didn’t want to say it. “Cows?”
Jo frowned heavily. “When was the last time you saw a steak?” she asked exasperatedly. “Maldición, I could kill for a hamburger right now.”
“It can’t be…,” Donner moaned. “You’re joking, right?”
“The toilets have gotta go somewhere!” Jo declared, with a heavy dose of “well, duh!”. Donner cringed. Jo clapped Donner on the back. “If it’s any consolation, all the crap’s so heavily mixed in with dirt that you can’t even really notice the smell,” she lied. Donner didn’t look convinced. “And you wonder why I don’t like mushrooms,” she smirked.
“Now I don’t like them,” moaned Donner.
“You still need to eat ‘em, though,” said Jo, staring at hers. “It just sometimes takes me a while to get the will.”
“Do you want my asparagus?” Donner proffered a spear. “I think I’ve lost my appetite.”
“Thanks, but I’ve got enough,” said Jo. “It chases the flavor of the mushrooms away.” To demonstrate the point, she heaved the mushrooms in, chewed lightly twice, swallowed hard, then shoved the spears and chewed vigorously, swallowed, and shivered. “Bleah!”
“You think too much about your food,” Donner commented.
Jo finished shivering. “My mama and abuelita brought me up on food. It was the centre of my family’s life. We all cooked together, we all ate together. Food was important, so it had to be done right. You could taste the love,” she mourned. “This? This is a crime against humanity.”
“It keeps us alive.” Donner shrugged. “Barely, anyway. We probably don’t get enough.”
“We don’t. There’s too many people. You and I need about 1,400 calories a day for the work we do. We’re lucky to get a thousand. There’s a lot of people who don’t get even that.” Jo sighed. The greenhouse wasn’t big enough and couldn’t grow food fast enough. Rations were kept as light as possible. Everyone was underweight.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” said Donner. He shoved in a mushroom and chewed. “It’s too bad we can’t grow soy beans,” he said between swallows. “Those would be better than this.”
Jo thought back to her first year at Stanford and the meagre contents of her fridge. “Try eating tofu for more than three days in a row.”
“We could get oil from them. Fry some of this for a change. And lubrication! Imagine how much better things would work if we could keep them greased! And we could eat the beans steamed, too. Ever had—“
“Edamame, yeah. Not really my thing. Either way, it doesn’t matter, since we don’t have soy beans. All we have is what we have.”
Donner poked at his remaining asparagus spear, like it might spring to life.
“Can we join you?” a woman sat down next to Jo rather forcefully. Her long, curly blonde hair was dutified tied behind her head.
“Hola, Dawn,” said Jo. “How’re the tunnels today?”
“Carl,” replied Dawn.
“Carl,” groaned Jo.
“Carl?” asked Donner.
“Who’s he?” Dawn asked Jo, thumbing at Donner.
“Donner, this is Dawn, one of the Engineers,” said Jo. “Donner’s been helping me make repairs.”
“No offense, Donner, but you’re about, what, fifty pounds wet? How do you keep up with one?” Dawn thumbed at Jo.
“Te quiero también,” said Jo, sticking out her tongue.
“Bitch,” Dawn replied.
When Dawn saw Donner’s eyes, she burst out laughing, Jo following. “Oh, Donner, honey, don’t worry. Jo’s practically my sister.”
“We’ve been doing this since…,” Jo trailed off as her face fell. “A long time.”
They sat in silence several moments before Donner spoke again. “So you work in the tunnels?” asked Donner.
“‘Work’ is a matter of subjectivity,” muttered Dawn. “I’m just a clerk.”
“She’s Carl’s secretary,” Jo said quietly, looking around. “Dawn’s one of the best structural engineers we have. She was almost graduated! But Frank—“
“Francis,” Dawn corrected automatically.
“—made her ‘help’ Carl, instead of doing real work.”
“Francis is my husband. He didn’t want me to get hurt.” Dawn rolled her eyes for emphasis.
“That’s … that doesn’t … it doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s not,” said Jo and Dawn together.
“So why do you agree?” asked Donner. “You can say what you want to do, right?”
Jo and Dawn looked at each other, a glance that only they knew. “I could,” said Dawn. “But I agree that the tunnels are a priority and unless someone manages the work properly, they won’t get done in time.”
“Carl’s supposed to be the project manager for the tunnels,” said Jo. “But he couldn’t manage a suntan without getting burned.”
“So why not make Dawn the project manager?” asked Donner. There was silence. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No,” said Dawn. “Welcome to the Patriarchy.”
“Dawn!” called Francis as he neared with his food tray. “Come on.”
“I’ll be right there,” she replied. “Just talking with my friend that I haven’t seen in three days.”
Donner sounded like he was about to speak, Jo cut him off with a motion of her hand. “We’ll catch you later.” As Francis passed, Jo nodded towards him. “Frank.” Francis merely grunted and continued as far down the bench as he could go, Dawn following.
“Why does she do what they tell her to do— that sounded really dumb, sorry,” said Donner.
“Tienes razón,” said Jo. “She shouldn’t. But Dawn does the same thing we all do: do what it takes to survive.”