Here follows the un-edited beta of chapter one of draft one of “Hope Runners of Gridlock”. The pdf version has substantially better formatting, so it’s advised to read that.
All she wanted was to disappear along with the endless line of cars into the sunset. She would then know what happened to her father.
The shimmering river of cars lined up perfectly with the setting sun & made it seem like she could swim into that glowing orange portal on the horizon. On this solstice, every 5 years, Flora and the rest of the city of Gridlock would watch its newly crowned Hope Runner bravely venture into the horizon, that unknown, to find answers about what happened to Earth and why they were alone.
“Flora? Are you there? Do you need help?”
Her gaze adjusted to her plump friend next to her as she brushed back her short hair, revealing the keys she usually wore as earrings. On the rooftop, his feet dangled far above the gridlock beneath them.
“Flora! Did you hear me? You ever thought of becoming a Hope Runner? Esper believes you should.”
“Palma.” Flora sighed. “Yes.”
“Wait, really?” Palma said as he quickly switched to his tall friend next to him. “Wait. Esper. Were you for real? Flora should become a Hope Runner?” Palma said as his head ping-ponged between his friends, hoping someone might explain that he missed something.
Flora was the first to break the rally. “Look at it, Palma.”
He turned to the city & its endless, ossified gridlock that flossed through the city beneath them. He adjusted his glasses to the sunset.
“It’s a shit-hole.” Flora continued. “The gridlock hasn’t moved for six decades. The city is being pushed to its brink. The air quality outside the dome is still deteriorating. What’s the point?”
“Fair. But. We wouldn’t have each other if it wasn’t for this city. Esper?” Palma said.
Esper nodded from behind his cap and decided the sunset is more important.
“Esper?” Palma asked again.
Esper clapped back. “Look Palma. Not everyone has what you have. I know Flora.”
Flora frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You never stopped saying it when we were young. Always wanting to leave. Remember?” Esper said, turning back to the horizon.
Palma was about to add something when a long siren went off. It took him off guard as the startled shake rattled his black bowl cut. He pushed his glasses back as he focused on the city down below.
The residents on the other skyscrapers beside them shuffled ready as the ceremony began. Down below, stood the new Hope Runner, the champion. A temporary walkway was constructed on top of cars that were stuck in their generational gridlock. Next to it, thousands of fans held up placards of Armin, the Hope Runner, and his long-distance mech. From the center of the city, at the Great Roundabout, he walked slowly towards the escape hatch at the end of the dome protecting the city.
He waved to his fans, taking a slow turn from the horizon.
“Gridlock!” His voice echoed from all the car radios. The warm summer accentuated the fall to silence.
“Hope! Our enduring spirit. Like the engines that have been idling in this city for decades, so do our hearts. We. Will. Witness a rebirth. We will witness renewal. We will jumpstart our internal engines once again. Across this horizon, across this sunset, I will find us our hope. I will find the end of this Gridlock. Like the Hope Runners before me, I stand on the shoulders of these skyscrapers of men & women. Each one of them adds to our enduring spirit. I am Armin, your Hope Runner, but I am not alone. To my tribute, my lover, Argent Winslow. You made me the person that I am. You gave me the courage to serve this city. I hope I will not only do this city proud, but you too, my love. This is not a goodbye. All that tribute money you received? You won’t even need to spend a dime of it! I will be back before you know it,” Armin said as he blew a kiss towards the city.
“To all who every year improve this city, thank you. To all who every five years present us with the new long-distance Hope mech. Thank you. So many don’t know the hard work and science that goes into improving them. Before I climbed into this, I just had to marvel at its beauty. With this new mech, there’s no doubt that I will return soon with the hope that is promised. I am honoured that I get to run into that horizon and serve this city. I will return soon with the fuel our spirits have been craving. Here’s to the city of Gridlock!”
The mech made a gesture of grabbing something from his back pocket and raising it into the air. The people of the city responded and raised their key fobs into the air.
At once the whole city turned their car locks on and off, echoing a giant “ung-ung” throughout the city. He waved goodbye and climbed through the dome gate. He started running along the line of cars bending into the horizon and soon the sunset swallowed him. The air was silent for a moment before cheers erupted throughout the city.
“Fuck. That was cheesy,” Esper remarked as he stood up.
“I dunno man. He was at least better than the previous hope runner,” Palma said, looking at Esper walking past him to the stairs. Esper just stared back at Palma.
Palma followed. “That part about jump starting our internal engines. That was good, though?” He paused. Flora was still sitting staring at the horizon. It was twilight. “Flora, you coming? What’s wrong?”
“I think I’m just going to sit for a while longer.”
“You aren’t coming for drinks?”
“No. Sorry. Not tonight.”
“You coming this week though, right?”
“Yeah. Sure. It’s the new spot in the mid-levels right?”
“You got it. It’s right at the edge of the mid-levels expansion, so you get a view of the gridlock. Really cool. Hipster bar.” Palma said, turning to the horizon briefly and back to Flora. Esper and Palma disappeared down the stairwell.
Flora drew up her legs to her chest, burying her face. Whilst staring at the horizon, a tear started rolling down her cheek. It dropped and the wind took it all the way to the cars down below. The Hope parties below responded in turn with muffled music. More tears came.
She reached into her jacket and took out a bracelet with a piece of leather in its middle. It was made from an old car seat. Scratched in it was the words: “To my Flora. I will be back. Love, Dad.”
Flora wiped back her tears and put the bracelet back into her pocket. Her hair blew into her tears, clinging to her face. She whispered aloud. “Dad. I wish you were still here.”
As the night arrived, the red lights on the top of the buildings started flickering, still warning the non-existent airplanes of their existence. The music became louder. The red lights beat like the hearts it harboured beneath them. With a deep breath, Flora got up, and descended back to reality.
People were weaving in and out of the cars in the gridlock. Music was blaring. Some cars even had makeshift bars, serving it out of temporary wooden windows. On the Hope Run days, the usually cordoned off homes that people built around their cars, would be taken down, to enjoy the common hope and party. Despite her mind still being away from the city, she smiled at the reverie.
In front of her, the mid-levels loomed, swallowing the cars and the old streetlights. Twilight was replaced with light fixtures hanging from the concrete built over the gridlock. The Trunks, the underground emanating underneath the mid-levels was awash with smells of humid sweat, food, leaking oil and desperation. Flora patted herself down, double checking her keys, and her phone. She had one sight in mind, the simulator arcade that was swallowed by the mid-levels 4 years ago. It had blue and purple lights bleeding into the Trunks.
It was packed, with many Trunks kids spilling out onto the sidewalk. She watched from the window as the kids took turns playing the mech simulator. They all had Armin t-shirts. One kid was doing surprisingly well, running along the simulated skyscrapers and deftly jumping ahead of his competitors. When it got into punching in the high score, Flora let out a small fist pump when she saw that her high scores were still all intact. Most of the top 20 scores read: “FLO”. Some said “ESP”, for Esper. It took Flora quite a few years to beat her own scores after Esper messed with the machine when they were teenagers.
“Why did you hack the machine to make me win?” Flora asked one evening after Esper confessed. Back then, the sun still shone into the arcade.
“You don’t want to win?” Esper responded, hiding his face behind his cap.
“Yes, but I want to do it for myself,” Flora replied.
Flora smiled at the memory, especially considering that when the arcade discovered that Esper hacked the machines, they employed him for a while to do other work.
“Win-win?” Esper replied, laughing.
Flora continued onwards, turning a corner towards where she lived with her mother. In the distance, she could see the last vestiges of dusk still peaking in. She exited the Trunks and back into the open gridlock. It was quieter here, and for good reason. This area essentially morphed into an old-age neighbourhood over the years. The homes built over sections of cars had subdued lights and slow shadows moving about them. When she approached their home, comprising of an old bus and a taxi next to each other, she didn’t see any shadows walking around. She opened the bus door, and habitually said hi.
Her mother didn’t reply.
“Mom?” Flora asked into their home.
Her mother appeared from the taxi that was serving as her bedroom. She forced a smile.
Flora pulled out a money stick from her pocket and gave it to her mother. “Mom. I worked extra hard this week. Maybe we can buy you that new dress you wanted?”
Her mother took it and kept trying to force a smile. She spoke through it, “Thank you, my dear. Let’s see how things go.” Her mother looked back from the money stick to her daughter. “You should try to keep this job. Seems it is also doing you good. You look happier.”
“Well,” Flora said, throwing her arms up in the air, “whatever you can call ‘happier’, I guess. Sure.” Flora smiled as she continued through to the kitchen in the bus, throwing together a sandwich for herself. She pulled on the drawer to pull out a knife when it jammed.
“Mom. We should really fix these drawers. Really.”
Her mother just stood there, not budging.
“Mom?” Flora asked, turning back to her.
Flora looked up to see her mother holding back tears.
Flora came in for a hug. “Oh mom.”
Her mother cried on her shoulder. “It doesn’t get easier. I’m sorry.” her mother said.
“Don’t be sorry, mom. I understand okay? You don’t have to be strong.”
Her mother wiped away her tears. “Just please tell me you won’t ever do it, okay?”
“I won’t, mom,” Flora said, turning to look her mother in her eyes. “I won’t okay? I promise. I won’t leave you.”
“Thank you,” her mother said embracing her daughter.
Behind her mother, Flora could see at the front of the bus, the picture of their family hanging from the rearview mirror. Flora held her father’s big hand as they all smiled. It was 22 years ago, before River Kaigo won, and ran with his long-distance mech into that sunset on the horizon in search of hope.
She hugged her mother tighter in the middle of their bus as the skyscrapers watched over them.