Fiction: In the Shade of the Overpass by Syd Kennedy

The implant in the city conservancy ranger’s wrist vibrates on the hour to remind him that it is time to patrol the perimeter of Riverside Park. He stands up, ignores the ache in his knees, and exits his station before the implant can sense disobedience and buzz again. It’s a small building tucked under the massive concrete overpass that transverses the north end of the park, and sits at the mouth of the moat that the city built below to catch the trash thrown from above. Beyond the overpass is the river, but the concrete legs of the overpass block it from the ranger’s line of sight.

This has been a quiet overnight shift so far, and he hopes it remains that way. If he doesn’t come across any trouble, he will be in a good mood when he returns home. If he is in a good mood, and not too tired, or if the blackout curtains in his room don’t do a good job keeping the light out, he may pry his numb body out of bed to go to the zoo, where he can drink coffee and peek in at the animals.

He walks down now along the park’s western border, just a yard or two away from the massive gray-walled apartment building that looms up over the edge of the park’s boundary, and does not look up. Today he does not want to see the naked man who stands in the third floor window at this hour and watches the park below, or the couple up on the seventh floor who fight with their window open, insults and vitriol drifting all the way down to his tired ears. He stoops to pick up a piece of garbage from the hard-packed, brown grass, then continues walking.

When he passes the building and rounds the corner to the south side of the park without incident, he sighs. All is quiet here. This will be his last patrol of tonight’s shift. The birds are beginning to chatter in the scraggly trees that surround him. They are his reverse alarm clock for the ranger. Before each dawn, they start to sing even before he notices that the sky is growing paler.

Two hundred paces later, he is back beneath the overpass, patrol finished without incident. Although the sun has not yet emerged over the horizon, he feels as if there is a difference in temperature when he is beneath the overpass once more, as if he has stepped into the shade. His stiff khaki uniform does little to keep him from shivering.

He sits back down at his seat inside of the station. It’s no more than a shed, but when he sits with his limbs tucked neatly, he fits perfectly fine within its four walls. In front of him is the opening that looks out into the moat, and by his

This is the second of the ranger’s two duties, besides patrolling the park: to pull the lever when it is time to flush the moat. It is a dull job, and not when he’d expected when he’d enrolled in the Conservancy Academy. He had pictured himself escaping the city, finding a place out in the wilderness, maybe in the mountains outside of the city that he’s always hoped to visit. But he is only in his third year on the job, and possesses neither the experience nor the connections to have influence over his assignments. He is lucky to have a job, anyway. Better to work here than to be one of the poor people who live in another quadrant of the city, without any parks at all.

Or to be one of the people up on the long, endless overpass. One of them tumbles over the edge now, the ranger sees, when the body falls in front of the window of his station. In that moment the ranger is grateful for the chattering of the birds. It covers up the crack of her body hitting the concrete floor of the empty moat. He leans out through the open window and squints at her. She is a slight woman, wearing the plain uniform of the lower-level city clerks. Long wisps of hair have escaped from the neat bun at the nape of her neck, which is bent violently. If she is not already dead, she will be soon. People do not survive the 150-foot drop. Overall, his assessment is that she’s beautiful, although he’s uninterested and looks away after a minute, locking his gaze on the lever by his hand instead.

The ranger had wondered at the lever in the station when a city official first knocked on his door to describe to him the Riverside Park assignment. He was amazed that a job that could so easily be automated was still available, and had asked if he would be at risk for replacement by a clever little machine that could flush trash as soon as it sensed the moat was full.

“There are times in this job when a more human touch is necessary,” the official had said.

The ranger had wondered at that, if she had perhaps meant to say “humane” instead, but surely an official of her years and experience would not have misspoke, so he made himself stop thinking about it. And over time, he’s grown to know better.

The jumper’s body is not yet completely still, but the ranger does not move from his spot facing the window. Every minute or so he glances up at her, and in between that he studies the maps of the park and the city that are pinned to the walls of the station. It has been a few weeks since he has seen someone die. The spasms and full-body jerks inherent to the process unnerve him, but not as badly as they had the first time. But eventually, as always, they stop.

He reaches down and rests his hand on the lever for a moment without putting any weight on it. A machine would not empty the moat until it was filled with enough trash to trigger a sensor, but the ranger is not a machine. He is trained to flush the moat not when it is full, but when it is needed. He pulls the lever now, and watches the rush of water fill the moat, carrying the woman’s body and the damp trash plastic and papers swiftly along the dirty concrete throat of the moat and down into the pipe that carries them far away. After a minute passes and the water flows clean, the ranger releases it and the water slows to a drizzle, then drains. Now the trash is under the jurisdiction of the city sanitation workers.

When the water clears, the moat is empty again, uniformly grimy along its cavernous sides and floor. There is no mark where the woman’s body landed. The flow of the water is powerful enough to wipe everything away.

The ranger’s wrist implant chirps to indicate that his shift is over. The sound of the birds is overwhelmingly loud now, and carries his body as he squirms his way out of the station and walks to the front gates of Riverside Park. He presses his wrist to the entry machine to clock out, and its lights flash green as the gate opens. If he turns left, he can be in his apartment and tucked into bed within ten minutes, before the sun has fully risen. If he turns right, he can be at the zoo just as its own gates open.

He turns right.

In a few years when he lives on his mountain, he will keep a journal so that he can remember all of the plants and the animals he sees. In the mornings he will wake up early to heat a pot of coffee on the stove, and then he will go outside to sit on the peak, watch the land beneath, and listen to birdsong.

Syd Kennedy is a recent graduate of American University who now works in sports journalism. She hails from Western NY but now lives in Washington, DC, with two roommates and one ghost. Her fiction has recently appeared in Belmont Story Review and the Butchery, a zine she co-founded focused on butch lesbian identity.

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