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The Air is Always Greener

"You'll be jealous of your own life!" said the vid-board. I kicked another can as I walked down the cramped street, snorting at the vacuous smiles and cheap promises of the blaring advert. Only the Uppers had anything worth being jealous of--the rest of us were left tending jealousy itself. My job packing boxes had kept my head off the pavement, but the roof that kept the rain off my head couldn't keep the grime out of my lungs.
Beyond the nineteenth floor, past the fog and amongst the Uppers, the air was cleaner. Life was cleaner: the smiles were genuine and the food was real. But packing boxes wouldn't get you past the fourth floor, and the fourth floor might as well have been the pavement. I ignored the lights of the vid-board and focused on something more tangible. You know where you are with an empty can.
Lately, I'd started to mess with the Uppers' boxes at the factory. I'd ignore a sharp edge on a child's toy, or take out the fail-safe on a housewife's blender. Mix apathy and resentment and simmer for twelve years. Would they be jealous of their own lives when they were missing a finger?
It made me sick. That there were people up there, past the fog, who could be bored with their clean air and clean food. People who would actually pay for a course of Reappreciation. People who thought that three weeks among the rest of us could justify their decadent lives in the Upper levels. Three weeks, surrounded by the smog and the violence that we had to call home. If I ever found one of those secret Uppers, I'd make him eat his wife's blender.
It wasn't long before the factory caught me.
I was fired without ceremony, but my sympathetic boss introduced me to one of his neighbors on the fifth floor. This neighbor sold various powders that often reached a woman on the Habitation Committee, who could set you up on the 23rd floor in probationary employment as an Upper Custodian. There were no guarantees--you'd have one week to prove you could burn rubbish at street-level and polish a window worthy of reflecting the Uppers' white teeth. But if you could make it work, you'd be free of the fog. You'd just about earn enough to pay the rent and keep a well-maintained filtration unit, and once you were among the vertical elite, who knew? You might find a girl who still had a head of hair, and she might endorse you for a vasecto-reversal. Of course, no one on the Habitation Committee liked to dish out free life-changers. There was always an agenda, and always a price: papers to be stolen, people to be silenced.
I never thought I'd have to kill a child, though. Somewhere out there was an Upper who had broken his vows, and now he wanted to get elected. Whether he was bound for Parliament or the Sanitation Committee was irrelevant--his dirty deed was long done, and now so was mine. Ending the boy had been the easy part--he struggled little and passed quickly. What I hadn't been ready for was the weight in my gut as I watched the final flicker of light fade from his eyes.
I'd always known I wouldn't have children of my own. The mandatory snips as I passed my tenth birthday in a second-floor flat had put an end to any of those aspirations. But I'd never expected to have to take a child away from anyone else, either.
I decided not to care anymore. As I kicked the can through its final hurdle, between the automatic doors of the silver hydrau-lift, and proudly touched the finger-scanner marked "23," I knew I could put it all behind me. I'd give it my all as an Upper Custodian--I'd wipe the waste from the seams of Upper society, suffer spit from the 30th floor and above, and do it all with a wide, accommodating smile. And for once, as I ascended at three floors per second, dazzled by the brilliance of my bright future, I didn't seem to mind the drivel on the hydrau-lift's vid-board.
"We know it's tough to appreciate life when you have it all--clean air, clean living, a clean family, and a clean home. That's why we've made it easier than ever to find new joys in old pleasures.
"Thanks to Reappreciation, you won't have to take anything for granted anymore. Forget the domestics. Forget that numbing, daily cycle--we can make it all feel brand new again.
"Our Recollection Artists create bespoke backstories, giving you all the mental history you need for a full and immersive experience. And what's more, Reappreciation is now 100% free from government affiliations. You'll be jealous of your own life!"
A pleasant tone marked my arrival on the 23rd floor, and I stepped forward into a clean, fresh corridor. By the eighteenth floor, the advert had started to make me feel ill, and I was relieved when the closing doors of the hydrau-lift put an end to its monologue.
I breathed new air as I reached my front door. I wasn't entirely sure how I'd come by the key, but it fit the lock and the door swung open, and as I peered into my new home, I was greeted by a shock of blonde hair and blue eyes. It was all coming back to me, and twelve years working in a factory didn't quite sound like the truth anymore. It started to feel a lot more like three weeks.
"I'm so glad you're home", she said, throwing her arms around my neck. "The kids have been worried sick. This is the last time you ever scare us like that again."
I'd made it out of the fog--and probably not for the first time. But this time, I knew I wouldn't forget what I'd done to get back.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 14th, 2016

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