All she wanted her entire life was to disappear along with the endless line of stationary cars into the sunset. Beyond that anomaly on the horizon, she could see her father again, and ask him about the truth: why he left, why he hasn’t returned, and what happened to the world.
“Flora?” asked a voice from beside her.
Perched above the city on a skyscraper, she could see the shimmering river of cars lined up with the setting sun. It made it seem like she could swim into that glowing orange portal on the horizon. On the solstice, every five years, Flora and the rest of the city of Gridlock would watch its newly crowned Hope Runner bravely venture into the horizon, to find answers about what happened to Earth, to their city, and why they had been alone for decades. Since the championship started a few decades ago, not one Hope Runner had returned from beyond the anomaly, her father included. Despite being the only city that they knew of still in existence, the city still came out in droves to watch another runner disappear into the distance: to find hope.
“Flora? Are you okay?” came the voice again.
Although she’s tried to feel hope, it’s always evaded her. She was up on the skyscraper every five years, hoping that there was some reason to the absurdity; that her father would somehow return from the anomaly that surrounded them, hundred kilometres in every direction. To her, it was not just the strange, invisible wall that kept them physically confined, but her own smothering mental prison.
Her gaze shifted to her two friends next to her as she recognised the voice of her plump friend, feet also dangling to the gridlock down below. Despite his bushy beard, he still had a youthful face that had not aged since high school.
“Did you hear me?” Palma asked again. “You thinking of entering the next championship?”
Flora released an anxious, stuttering sigh. “If Armin doesn’t come back, yes.”
Flora’s head sank. “Palma. No. As much as I want to, I can’t leave my mother behind. Not yet.” She stared out over the city again. “But seriously, just look at it! I know you see things differently from where you live, but . . .”
As Flora spoke, Palma turned to the city and its endless, ossified gridlock that flossed through the city beneath them.
“. . . it’s a shit-hole. The gridlock hasn’t moved for several decades. The city is being pushed to its limits. What’s the point? There are no more answers for us here. It’s all . . . out there.”
“I think you should,” her other friend said, peering up from under his cap. His long legs also dangled over the edge.
“No, Esper. We’ve been through this. One day. Not now.”
“Don’t you think it’s time that your mother also knew the truth?”
Flora didn’t answer and turned back towards the sunset. The city was stirring with energy as it anticipated its newly crowned Hope Runner and his Hope speech. A long siren sounded. It startled Palma as his bowl cut hair shook like a piece of upside-down jelly.
Below stood Armin, the new Hope Runner, the winner, the champion, the soul who would bring this city its answers and its salvation. A temporary walkway, constructed on top of the cars still stuck in their multi-generational gridlock, welcomed the new Hope Runner. Next to the walkway, thousands of fans held up placards of him. From the centre of the city, at the Great Roundabout, Armin climbed into his long-distance mech, a giant robotic exoskeleton, capable of supporting him for several months beyond the anomaly.
Assuming they even survived when they passed through it, Flora thought.
Armin walked proudly, the mech’s gears and engines pushing him forward towards the city’s dome gate. He came to the walkway’s end, took a slow turn from the horizon, and waved to all his fans in the city.
The usually transparent protective dome over the city fizzed into giant screens. “Gridlock!” His voice echoed from all the car radios. A silence fell over the city.
“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 and through the anomaly, I will find our hope. Like the Hope Runners before me, I stand on the shoulders of these skyscrapers of men and 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 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! 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 long-distance mech, there’s no doubt I will return soon with our hope. 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. This is for everyone in the city. To those who live in the Trunks. To those who live in the cars in the Gridlock. To those who live in the Mid-Levels. To those who live next to lakes in the Penthouses. This is for all of us. Here’s to the city of Gridlock!”
Armin raised his mech’s arms into the air. The people of the city responded and raised their key fobs to their cars into the air.
At once the entire city turned their car locks on and off, echoing a giant ung-ung. He waved goodbye and stepped through the dome gate. He started running along the line of cars bending into the horizon. Soon the sunset swallowed him. In a few minutes, at the edge of their known world, he would pass through the threshold of the anomaly. The city never gets to see it: their hero suddenly fading into thin air doesn’t exactly foster hope. Regardless, cheers erupted throughout the city.
“Fuck. That was cheesy,” Esper remarked as he stood.
“Really? He was at least better than the previous Hope Runner,” Palma said, looking at Esper walking past him to the stairs.
Palma followed. “That part about jump starting our internal engines. That was good, though?” He paused and turned to Flora. She was still sitting, eyes on the horizon. It was twilight, and the sunset reflected off the keys she usually wore as earrings. “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. I’ve got work tomorrow.”
“They didn’t give you off?”
“Yes, but I screwed up, and now, well . . . I have to make up for it. Don’t really have a choice.”
“You're coming out later this weekend 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 over 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 her legs up to her chest, burying her face between them. While staring at the horizon, a tear rolled down her cheek. It dropped and even though there was no atmospheric wind inside the dome, it flew wistfully all the way to the cars below. The parties below responded with muffled, thumping music. More tears came.
She reached into her jacket pocket and took out a bracelet with a piece of leather in its middle. Made from an old car seat, inside it were the last scratched words from her father: “To my Flora. I will be back. Love, Dad.” It is also what he promised to the city. His last words in his Hope speech were: “Hope is a choice. I will be back.”
Flora wiped her tears and put the bracelet back into her pocket. She looked towards the horizon, hoping to see him come running back.
As the twilight 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 they harboured beneath them. With a deep breath, Flora got up and descended to reality. It was time to head home to her mother.
As she exited the building, there were many celebrating in the ever-present gridlock. Music was blaring from makeshift bars constructed around the cars, serving alcohol out of temporary wooden windows. Despite her mind still being away from the city, she smiled at the reverie. There was hope, clearly, but she couldn’t feel it.
She continued walking along the gridlock until a part of the Mid-Levels loomed in front of her: concrete and steel connecting skyscrapers over the road below. It seemed to swallow the cars and the old streetlights. She entered the tunnel of darkness underneath it, twilight replaced with light from fixtures hanging from the concrete above. The Trunks, a new underground emanating underneath the Mid-Levels, was awash with smells of sweat, fried food, and desperation. Flora patted herself down, double checking her keys and her phone as she walked along the cars that no longer witnessed the sun. Despite the improvements in the long-distance mechs, increasingly the writing was on the wall. To Flora, the city was dying, and it was apparent to her that the city was burying its own streets under fresh concrete. Despite the despondency, Flora kept going, for one reason: to find answers. It’s what always kept her going.
As she walked home, the familiar blue and purple LED sign of Mack’s simulator arcade hovered closer, shining over kids that were spilling out onto the sidewalk. They all had Armin t-shirts on, likely talking about the Hope Run championship that he won a week ago. One kid in the simulator was doing well, running along the simulated skyscrapers and deftly jumping ahead of his competitors. When the kid entered his high score, Flora let out a small fist pump: her high scores were still all intact. Most of the top 20 read: FLO. Some said ESP, for Esper. It’s where they met, both fans of the simulator. It took Flora quite a few years to beat her own scores after Esper messed with the machine when they were teenagers.
One evening, when they were younger and the sun still shone into the arcade, Esper confessed to hacking it.
“Why did you hack the machine to make me win?” Flora asked him as they walked hand in hand in search of a late-night snack. They still smiled often back then, wearing youth on their faces.
“You don’t want to win?” Esper responded, hiding his smile and jest under his cap.
“Yes, but I want to do it for myself,” Flora replied, punching him on his arm.
Flora beamed at the memory. It hugged her like Esper used to hug her. When the arcade owner discovered that Esper hacked the machines, they employed him for a while to do other work.
Flora continued onwards through the Trunks, turning a corner towards where she lived with her mother. Leaving the darkness and the memories of her past behind, she exited the Trunks into the last minutes of twilight. On some days, it felt like the streetlights that still glowed in this corner of the city were afraid that at any moment the Mid-Levels would absorb it. This quiet area, nestled between skyscrapers on three sides of it, morphed into an old-age home. The unregulated building of the Mid-Levels seemed to respect the elderly. The homes built over and around the cars emitted soft lights and had slow shadows moving about them. Flora approached their home, comprised of an old bus and a repurposed taxi next to each other. She opened the creaking driver-side door and habitually said hi.
Her mother didn’t reply.
“Mom?” Flora asked into their home. At this time of the evening, her mother was usually nestled around the kitchen behind the driver’s seat. Instead, she appeared from the taxi that was serving as her mother’s bedroom. Flora moved to the back of the bus where her own bed was and pulled out a money stick from her backpack. She gave it to her mother. “This is for you. I worked extra hard this week. Maybe we can buy you that new dress you wanted?”
Her mother took the money stick and forced a smile. She spoke through it, “Dear. Thank you. Let’s see how things go, okay?” 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.” 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. “We should really fix these drawers. Really.”
Her mother was silent behind her.
“Mom?” Flora asked, turning to face her mother, holding back tears. Flora came in for a hug.
“It doesn’t get easier. I’m sorry,” her mother said.
“Don’t be sorry. 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,” 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 to the front of the bus, the picture of their family dangling from the rearview mirror. In the picture, Flora held her father’s big hand as they all smiled. It was 18 years ago, before River Kaigo, husband and father, won the Hope Runner championship and ran with his long-distance mech into that sunset on the horizon in search of answers and hope. The only thing he told his family was that by leaving, he would protect them. He left with that secret, never revealing what he was protecting them from. For years, ever since her father left, Flora wanted to know the truth. She wanted answers . . . about everything. It was her obsession. The one person, however, that allowed her to roam free and find those answers, was her mother. It was the one person she would never put above her own need for answers. She let out a sigh and hugged her mother tighter as the skyscrapers watched over them.
* * *
One year later, the first Hope Runner ran back from the anomaly, that threshold that no one came back from, and suddenly her answers were within her grasp.