This is the story that opened my first draft of The Breaking Dawn. I replaced it because a new opening suited the book far better, but also because it was misunderstood. People saw the name, “Mohammed,” and thought, “terrorist.” That wasn’t how I wanted to open a book.
Still, I like the story and so I’ve decided to post it here. To be clear, J. Taylor Mohammed is a young, American, black man. Back in the 1960s, Americans of African extraction began switching to African names, and there are a lot of Mohammeds in Africa. This young man was not a Muslim; he was merely carrying one of those names.
This is his story.
* * * * *
J. Taylor Mohammed was on the verge of becoming a good man. Several generations of his descendants, under better circumstances, would have remembered him for giving their family a tradition of self-respect and achievement. JTM, as he was usually called, would have been a good and kind husband, a strong, loving father, and a dignified, wise grandfather. But instead, J. Taylor Mohammed lay dying in a shoddy, improvised radiation clinic, somewhere in Louisville South 5.
“Did they tell you?”
The female voice came from a hooded figure that stood above the table where he lay. Over her face was a piece of tinted glass or plastic, the front of which looked almost like a welder’s helmet. From there, she was shrouded with a heavy cape that seemed three sizes too large for her.
“You mean that I’ll be dead in two or three days? Yes, they told me.”
“Listen,” she said, “I’m supposed to keep you here, but my shift ends in five minutes and the guy for the next shift is always drugged. You’re still strong enough to walk, so if you want to spend your last few days in the sun, you can leave. There’s nothing more I can do for you anyway.” Then she waited for a response.
“I think I’ll do that.”
“Good. Just wait five minutes and remember to stay away from people. Don’t hug anyone goodbye or anything like that.”
The cloaked figure then turned to walk out. JTM tried desperately to discern who this bearer of mercy was. But under the heavy coverings, he could only discern that she was very young and from Louisville Central, where people spoke with a proper accent.
“Bless you,” he said as she walked out. He hadn’t intended on saying this – the words left his mouth on their own. This woman, this girl, had done him a sacred service, and “bless you” were the only words in him that fit the occasion. “Thanks,” even if he had thought of saying it, would have been inadequate to the point of insult.
So here he would lay, for five minutes, and then he would go out into the world… to do what? He had one day of pain and limited ability in front of him, then another day or two of decline into death.
JTM was nether thinking or feeling well, but the combination of radiation and the certainty of death did give him one gift – they wiped away the web of irrelevant confusion that had previously made up his daily thoughts, leaving only those things with actual substance. He faintly felt that what remained after the confusion were things that had some type of connection inside of him… whatever such a connection might be and however it might work.
The thought, “four minutes” drifted through his consciousness. Four minutes until I leave here and do something that matters to me. And just then, something collided with his mind, and he knew, instantly and certainly, that when he had thought “me” this time, it meant something different than every other time he had used the word. This time “me” was not the part of him that responded to a desire for food or drink or things. It was not the part of him that responded to intimidation or demands or guilt. And it was certainly not “a pleasant young black man of average stature.” This time “me” was he, himself, his essence. This shocked him. How was it that he had never before noticed himself?
Then JTM felt foggy and thought he could see something like water flowing over an orb. But as he looked closer, he saw that it wasn’t water, but streams of bright, flashing distractions, spreading and covering the orb until only slivers of it could be seen. Whether or not this was caused by the sickness, he knew what it meant. But could it be true, that nearly all his thoughts had been misgiven?
He winced and almost groaned at a sharp pain in his lower back. Then he glanced at the clock on the wall. “Three minutes,” he murmured to himself. The passing time had seemed like mere seconds. But while he had an entirely new understanding of “me,” he didn’t know what that “me” should head out to do in three minutes. His tried to think, but his mind refused. Worse, the headache that had been off and on for the past two days returned. Then he became dizzy and vomited over the side of the table.
Two minutes. He was facing the central choice of his existence and both his body and brain were noncompliant. He remembered his old soccer coach saying something about digging down into himself and pulling something out. He had never really understood that, but it was the very last option he had; he’d have to make it happen. So, he gathered every scrap of his will, focused it, without restraint, in a direction that seemed like “inside,” and waited. To his surprise, something did come up.
What came up to JTM, whatever it was, made him know he was meant for nobler and better things than to die at twenty, having done nothing of consequence. He wasn’t persuaded, he simply knew. This wasn’t discourse, it was contact.
He saw that the fault for his death didn’t really lie with his stone ignorant brother, who had brought home the cesium that killed him. As idiotic as his brother was, it was actually the fault of the system that made his brother useless, and had limited his own existence to mere corvée work.
Time was slipping away and his life was leaving with it. He knew that he was bleeding internally and that his hair had fallen out. He had, at best, two days in which he could stumble along somewhere and do something. But what? Just looking at the sky and stars wouldn’t come close to what the situation demanded. If he didn’t do something that mattered, he would fail his own existence, and that was perfectly unacceptable.
* * * * *
Corvée had always existed so far as JTM knew, but the older folks said it started when he was small. Since then, everyone receiving credits had to work, either for a corporation or three months per year in the corvée. Working for a corporation got you more credits, of course, but no one from Louisville South 5 had that kind of job. None of the Mohammed family, or their neighbors, had worked a full-time job since the New Order was established. They all took their monthly credits, rented from the local property corporation, and worked in the corvées they were assigned to.
JTM’s corvée schedule was three weeks in the spring, five weeks in autumn and four in the winter. Breaking corvée was not done. Those who did were sent to retraining camps, and many of those never returned. In the spring JTM went through the outer zones, helping to distribute seed and fertilizer to farmers. Autumn was the harder work, when thousands of corvée workers harvested corn and brought it back to the core district. Winter mostly involved salting roads.
Beside corvée, JTM had to work one evening per week at a loft farm in Louisville Central. He liked that work better, got some extra credits, and there were no punishments for missing a night at the city farm. Beside, it gave him better access to the stores in the central district; they were much better than the stores in Louisville South.
Once, while on a winter corvée clearing roads, JTM had reached the edge of the southern Abandons, places where no civilized person would go. There were rumors of an Abandons to the west of Louisville, but no one from Louisville South had ever seen them, and they would have: Louisville South 4 and 5 were the corvée groups that went furthest out. They were the poorest people in Louisville, and the most expendable.
JTM’s brother Bix had often worked in the “civilized corridor” that ran from Louisville to Nashville. So, when he and his friends heard that something happened at Fort Knox, and that the guards had left, he knew how to find it. “Bix and the fools,” as JTM sometimes called them, stole a truck and hurried to Fort Knox, certain that they’d come home with treasure.
As it turned out, Bix and the fools were not alone; many others came at the same time. They brought whatever tools and equipment they could find, and eventually made their way into the vaults, carrying away hundreds of gold bars.
What these people didn’t bother to ask was why the guards had run away. And the answer was simple: The gold depository at Fort Knox had been irradiated. One day of exposure was fatal if untreated. Three days exposure was fatal even with treatment.