Conveyor Belts by Matthew C.
We notice the factory on the horizon long after we notice the smell. It’s a heavy smell, one that saturates everything around you. The bitter, charred smell of cooked meat makes our stomachs growl.
“How far out do you think we are?” little Frankie asks, pointing to the factory just out of our reach. A thick, milky plume of smog escapes from the top of the building, further tempting our wet mouths.
“An hour or two,” Granny responds, looking down at Frankie. We all know she’s running out of time; her old age is finally catching up with her. A slight breeze, as crisp as a fresh apple, stings our cheeks, one of the many reminders of the upcoming winter. It reminds Granny of the cold days as well, forcing the melancholy on her face to show itself. She remembers that her days are numbered even more than I do.
“Smells of meat,” Tracey says, a somber tone in her voice. “Do you think we finally get some?” All at once our stomachs growl in unison. Frankie’s eyes gleam with excitement, a smile widening over his innocent face.
“What does meat taste like?” Frankie asks, a look of purity frosting his face. We’d all forgotten that he’d never tried meat before, that in his seven years of life not once were we given anything worth chewing.
It takes a while for anyone to respond, but when Tracey does, her answer is perfect: “it’s worth the wait.”
The conversation lulls after this, bringing my attention to my surroundings. The sun is beginning to set on the edge of the flat ground, casting a spectacle of blood reds and apricot oranges across the sky. The cloudless November sky looms over us, speckles of stars beginning to form. I look ahead of me now, away from the sunset and towards the factory. The conveyor belt we sit on is beginning to show signs of wear. Pricks of rust flash on the gears below us and the hard plastic of our seats is becoming flimsy.
When I was Frankie’s age, it was hard to understand why we were destined to sit on these belts our entire lives. The whole idea of waiting seemed so futile, and there were many days when I almost stood up and walked off. But it was also those days when Granny would tell me what her parents told her: that one day we would be taken to where we wanted to be. She would tell me that the conveyor belts have a purpose and that it isn’t safe to leave them. I suppose one day soon I would be telling Frankie the same thing.
The factory is getting closer and closer, inch by inch, the tantalizing smell lulling me into a dream-like state. “How far now?” Frankie asks. Granny tells him that the wait is almost over.
The little boy begins bouncing in his seat, his flimsy torn teddy bouncing around with him. He is too giddy to stay still, and too ecstatic to keep quiet. “Do you think the factory is going to be warm?” He asks, ignoring a shiver, “I can’t wait to be warmed up.”
The belt continues pushing us forward, and as it does Frankie’s bouncing becomes more and more flamboyant: flying limbs, an ape-like squeal, and then pure terror spreading across his face as the teddy bear flies through the air, helpless and limp. Before anyone can react the plush hits the hard ground beside us, away from the belt. Tears begin to flood his face, his bottom lip quivering. “Mom?” he looks at Tracey, his cheeks growing red and puffy. As Tracey looks at him in heartbroken horror, the little boy’s pleas become more barbaric. “Mom, please!” Tears stream down his face like a river rapid, the truth setting in: the bear isn’t coming back.
As I sit and watch the little boy begin to mourn, more helpless than he had ever been, I begin to feel something I haven’t felt in forever: I feel the need to step off. What was stopping me? There sat the teddy bear, not twenty feet away. The cure to the little boy’s crying, the answer to his agony. I almost stand up in that moment, so close to snapping, but my attention is snatched away once more by the factory now looming over us.
Frankie’s attention shifts as well; his sobs are now just sniffles. The smell of meat has thickened, a muggy sludge puffing from within the building. “Not long now,” Tracey says, her voice changing from cynical to awe-struck. This is by far the biggest factory we’ve ever seen, a giant slab of concrete jutting into the sky. Smoke puffs from the windows lining the walls, a waterfall of ash cascading over us. The belts continue to push us forward, into the smoky abyss.
“I’m so excited,” Frankie speaks through wet lips, his mouth watering at the thought of the meal to come. “I just can’t wait.”
Before anyone can respond, the conveyor belt does something it’s never done before. “It’s turning,” Granny sounds even more surprised than I am, awe melting through her words; for the first time in forever, she sounds as innocent as Frankie. The turn in the belt is but ten feet away, and all of us are completely and utterly focused on it. All our lives we had moved forward, and soon we wouldn’t be.
“Do you think we’re here,” Tracey asks, holding her son’s hand in a gentle caress. “Do you think we’re where we want to be?” Nobody responds. All of our eyes are captivated by the churning belt, as it slowly but surely begins to turn us to the left. I have sat on this belt for my whole life, after being randomly placed with these people I call my family. The process was simple: one day you just wake up, remember nothing from before, a feeling of nostalgia making your body feel fuzzy. After that you sit with these people who you don’t know, hearing so many rumors about why we sit: that the ground has turned to a bitter, fizzing acid, or that we were being saved from something behind us. You are told that if you wait long enough you will end up where you want to be.
The factory around us is plain and gray; yet, I have never been so excited in my entire life. Filled to the brim with child-like glee, I was thrilled… until I saw what lay ahead.
“Mom,” Frankie’s voice echoes through the empty factory. “What is that?” A pit of fire lies waiting ahead of us, the conveyor belt running right into it. It looks hungry.
“Smells of meat,” Tracey says, her voice but a whisper; ahead of us another group of people are cradled into the flame. Dread begins to fill in the tip of my stomach as they die without screams.
“What do we do?” I ask the group, putting a hand on Frankie’s shoulder. He still doesn’t understand what’s happening.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Tracey responds too slowly, our seconds limited as we inch towards the inferno. I think of the way she let her child sob, the way she let the bear drift away. And how she is willing to let her son die.
“We can stand,” I try to sound tall when I speak but there’s a quiver in my voice. Never before have I felt this much emotion: an overwhelming overdose within my veins.
Granny snorts at me, treating this situation like a daily routine: “No, we can’t.”
We’re so close to the pit that I can feel the flame against my skin. Frankie’s words haunt my head as we inch closer and closer: “I can’t wait to be warmed up.”
Granny sits ahead of me on the belt. She is the first to fall in. She gives us all a slight nod before gravity takes a hold of her, dragging her downward. Frankie and Tracey go together, the little one still unsure of what’s to come. Tracey looks content, a somber smile atop her lips. You are told that if you wait long enough you will end up where you want to be.
I’m up next, all but three seconds from my fate. I remember all the times Granny told me it was worth it, that all of the suffering and the shivering and the starving would pay off. Two seconds. Their faces flash before my eyes: Granny and I sharing a laugh, Tracey holding her newborn son, and Frankie losing his bear. One second. And I remember the bear. I think of how free it is, how all it needed was a little push.
The flames reach over the edge, teasing me, reaching for me like hungry hands. The pain taints my vision. The flames dance all around. The belt keeps moving. All I need is a little push. And I stand…
…just not fast enough.