A short story
(c) 2016 Linda S. Bingham
I wake up hot, throwing off covers. It was hot in the dream, too. Awake finally, my conscious mind fills in the blanks. I was in hell, being roasted by Beelzebub, the nightmare apparently conjured by the actual heat in our bedroom. Horror fades as full consciousness returns and I realize there’s a more prosaic explanation. The air conditioning has gone off. It’s hot as hades in our bedroom. I squint through the gloom to see if my husband is awake, or even there, as it appears the covers are thrown back.
“Ian, are you there? What’s wrong with the air?”
He’s probably seeing to it already. I get up and stumble over my pillow on the floor. It’s dark in the room, too dark. Where are the little pilots that usually light my way through the house? The green digits of the alarm clock, the red dot that signals a power cord down next to the baseboard, the pale green disk in the hallway that serves as a nightlight, the glowing diodes of our devices? Dark. All dark. I am suffocating from this heat! We’ve depleted all the oxygen in the room. I feel my way through the living room to the front door and fling it wide. It’s barely cooler outdoors and a good deal more humid. August in Austin is no time for the air-conditioner to die.
Up and down the street, lights are off, nowhere, not even in the distance is there a glimmer or a twinkle. The power failure must be wide-spread, then, not just our house. It will do no good to open the metal box in the garage and flip breakers, yet that must be what Ian is doing. As an engineer, you’d think it would occur to him to look outside first.
“Were there stars?”
“Yes, of course there were stars.”
“You said there was no light.”
I meant man-made, of course. There were stars, lots of them, pure white dazzling pinpoints, so bright they almost hurt my sleep-widened eyes. We don’t see stars much in the city. To view celestial events, we drive out to less-developed areas of the Hill Country. Ian and I went to Enchanted Rock only last month to view a comet through his scope. The International Space Station crossed over and three planets aligned themselves in the west.
But I barely notice the stars as I look for Ian.
“Ian! Where the hell are you?”
By now I know there is nothing he can do about the air conditioning. I want to brag on myself, tell him I’ve diagnosed the problem while he was around back fiddling with the compressor or some such man thing. I hear a voice I recognize as belonging to the crazy old lady who lives next-door.
“Mrs. Dunstan, is that you? The power’s off up and down the street.” She probably thinks the power failure is a ploy to make her open her door.
Both cars are in the garage, which means that Ian has not driven off somewhere. He showed me once how to raise the garage door when the power is off, but it involved pulling a cord overhead, which I certainly can’t do in the dark. The garage is even hotter than the house.
I’m thirsty but know better than to open the refrigerator and let the cold air escape. Who knows how long the power will be off. I find a tumbler in the cabinet and hold it under the tap. There is no water. The power outage must have affected well pumps, too. Ian could explain all that, but where is he?
I’m beginning to feel angry now. No, not afraid. Of what should I fear? I’m one of the most privileged humans to ever inhabit the planet, hardly knowing the pinch of real insecurity. Instead, I am angry at my husband for not being there to manage the situation. Where could he be? How could he disappear just when I need his specific skill set?
I should call the power company, I think, although they’ve probably received hundreds of calls from customers in the Cedarcrest subdivision. “Sitting in the dark, here, cursing the heat!” But I don’t make that call. We don’t have a landline any more, and the cell phones, neither Ian’s nor mine, is working. You would think lithium ion batteries would hold their charge longer, but maybe the cell towers are affected, too. You might find it ironic that a science writer loathes mobile phones. I only carry one in case of car trouble.
I creep to the back porch and uneasily occupy a lounge chair for the rest of the night. Sometimes I drift off, but each time I open my eyes, I see that nothing has changed. Ian has not come home. It is hot. It is dark. The sky gradually brightens and I hear voices out front. I walk around my house to find neighbors pooling mid-block. It’s too dark to make out faces, but I recognize a voice here and there. Some of them have children or an elderly person to care for. One man, whose wife is bedridden, says that a medical device failed to switch over to the generator. Another man, Phil, is indignant. He’s really going to let them have it, he says. He pays his bill on time. Why has no one come around to get our power back on?
Has anyone seen Ian? I keep asking. My issue pales in significance to the genuine emergency we face. We can’t use our telephones. There is no crawler across the bottom of a screen to tell us how long we will be inconvenienced. No one owns an old-fashioned radio any more, although Phil says he has a police scanner. It doesn’t work without electricity.
Misery loves company, but I grow weary with the lack of information, with Phil’s righteous ire. The pavement we are standing on radiates heat from the baking it gets during the day. I return to my own yard, hoping against hope that everything will have magically corrected itself in my absence, but it’s still dark in my house. Still hot. And Ian is still missing. I walk into every room and raise the windows to let in as much air as possible.
Ian is not a quiet person. You always know when he’s home. His vitality, his booming voice, the way he slams doors, turns the volume up on the TV. He’s slightly deaf from working around jet engines. But that night, or rather morning, I suppose it was, the house was quiet as the grave. No hum of appliances, no movement of air, no Ian.
Thirst sends me back to the refrigerator. By now it seems to make little difference if I let the cold air escape. I’m surprised the interior doesn’t light up, such is the weight of unconscious expectation. Over the following hours and days, I am continually surprised. Nothing is what I think it is. No one is who they seem. I drink cold water, the last I will swallow until I reach the lake days later. I also eat a few bites of last night’s chicken casserole, knowing I will have to throw it out if the power doesn’t come on soon. I can’t think what else to do, so I pull a random book from my stack and return to the porch. It’s too dark to read, so I sit quietly and try to plan logical steps for morning.
As the sky brightens, I find that I’ve selected Middlemarch. I open the novel and try to distract myself with Eliot’s unhappy sisters, but my mind keeps wandering back to my missing husband and the crisis I’m in the midst of and whose duration I cannot know. I have a nagging suspicion that I am still dreaming. Sometimes I take a sleeping pill that gives me weird dreams. Is this a dream and I a sleeper who cannot awake?
As I wait for the sun to rise, I am aware of the silence that envelops our neighborhood. The expressway is less than two miles from here. I should hear the roar of morning traffic that even closed windows can’t shut out. But there is no roar. No cars back out of garages along our street, no commuters head off to work on the boulevard that runs close by. Nor do planes take off from Bergstrom Airport gain altitude over our backyard. We learned in the days following 9-11 how silent the skies fall when emptied of aircraft. On this August morn, the thrum of crickets is the noisiest thing in the world.
Where can Ian be? Was he called away during the night? What sort of emergency requires the expertise of a man who designs rocket engines? Why would he leave without his phone, his car? I should go see if his shoes, his glasses, his security badge are missing, but I’m afraid to go back inside the hot dark house.
It’s books I miss most here. My mind hungers for the lovely shape of type-face that conjures images—miniature but elaborate worlds populated by facsimiles of ourselves, different enough to be novel, similar enough to give us insight into characters who would otherwise baffle us. We all wear an obscuring mask we call a face. We give ourselves expressions, though not necessarily for clarity. Fiction writers give us a peek behind that mask. Although I write non-fiction, I enjoy novels. I realize the significance of the missing books. This is my special hell, isn’t it? Are paper and pencil so subversive? Might I invent a world into which I can escape?
This morning in the shower I breath on the glass and write my name in comic san serif.
“They put something in our food,” Hector whispers.
“How do you know?”
“I can’t get my dick hard.”
“Would you please keep that kind of information to yourself? I don’t care about your personal problems.”
“It wouldn’t affect you. You’re a chick.”
“Go talk to somebody else, Hector. I have my own thoughts.”
His words make me think, though. We don’t see our food being prepared or know whose hands do the preparing. Trays, identically filled, come along the little conveyance that brings us other necessities. We eat and return the trays to the belt and after a while it starts moving and takes the trays and dirty dishes out of sight.
A few words about our room. Though spacious enough, there’s little privacy other than our sleeping bays, as I shall call them. There are two bathrooms, each containing a toilet, wash basin, and shower. Utilitarian and austerely functional. We four women sleep in adjoining bays, with the empty bay dividing us from the men. There are no budding friendships among us. We’re all so different. It almost seems as if we seven were thrown together as least likely to form emotional bonds. A high-rise elevator could not carry as much disparate human freight. Other than being American, there’s little else we share, not in the past anyway. We certainly share the present and foreseeable future.
The eighth bed is empty. We keep expecting one more person to join us. It seems wasteful to leave one bed empty. Maybe that person, whoever it is, will be the missing ingredient that turns a mismatched lot into a community, a family of sorts.
The bays have hospital type curtains to draw for a minimum of privacy. We are furnished clothing suitable for day or night wear. There are no labels or identifying marks. The beds are institutional, but if you’re thinking this is some kind of medical facility, let me stop you there. We are not patients. No one comes in to check on us or to administer medications. There is no sense that we are recovering from something or rehabilitating, although I sometimes think we’re all wounded in one way or another.
We argue about the nature of this facility and can reach no consensus. Each inmate has his own theory about what this place is. We call it “the room” for lack of a better term. The main feature is not its furniture, conveyor belt, or even its inhabitants, diverse as we are. What you notice first is the great circular dome over our heads. It provides light and a bit of color, though not as blue as the natural sky. Dragging our beds to the center of the room and stacking the frames till they threaten to collapse, we cannot reach the ceiling to find out what it’s made of.
The source of light is another thing on which we do not agree, whether it’s natural or man-made. Some of us detect an east to west movement of the brightness, although, since we have no access to the real sky, we can’t know actual compass points. Movement or direction aside, the duration of dark and light appears to be evenly divided. If we’re not allowed paper and pen, you might guess that we also do not have clocks, cell phones, calendars, and certainly no TV or Internet.
We argue about time as much as anything. I used always to know the date and time. I had deadlines to meet, chores and errands to run. But here, it’s impossible to say it’s Thursday, or this is June, or even, this is 1984 or 2001. For a certain length of time the dome gradually brightens, reaches its zenith, and then slowly fades. A day’s length? Who can say. As the light fails, we wind down our activities and one by one slip off to our sleeping bays. Hector, the one who thinks there are chemicals in our food, says we’re drugged and that’s why we sleep so soundly. It’s true that I used seldom to sleep through the whole night. I don’t feel drugged.
We awake to our false dawn, more or less refreshed. The conveyor starts moving and after a while trays roll out and we have our breakfast. Steve, the black man, says the coffee is atrocious. He’s from Seattle and knows good coffee. I never drank coffee at home, but I do now if only for the novelty of bitterness on my tongue. Any sensation is better than none.
There is a door, but it doesn’t open. Like the false dawn, the door is a sham, a joke, a half-hearted attempt to suggest we have free will, that we can walk out of this place. There aren’t even hinges. There are 7 billion of our species troubling the planet, yet our world contains only seven.
Laura, at 46, is the oldest among us. This is an asylum, she says, and we are lunatics. Laura doesn’t remember a power failure. Instead, she awoke to a searing pain in her right side. She remembers an ambulance ride and a host of white-clad strangers hovering over her. She believes she underwent surgery and accounts for her present circumstances as the lingering effects of anesthesia. She is happily married and greatly misses her husband Frank. She wonders why he hasn’t come for her. I’ve heard her quietly crying on her side of our shared curtain. She also misses having something to do with her hands. She was a terrific crocheter, she tells us. And she likes to cook. The institutional food here will keep body and soul together, but does nothing for the spirit.
Laura has two cats. She worries that Frank will forget to feed them. They were quite elderly, as cats go. She got them as kittens, two brothers who look just alike except for the white patterns on their faces. She has grandchildren, too, but they live in another state. She is from a suburb of Atlanta.
Steve, the guy from Seattle, is handsome and vain. He worries about keeping fit and spends hours down on the floor doing calisthenics. He says he wants to stay fit so he can break out of this place. The mirror above the sink is small, forcing him to ask Charles if his ass is getting bigger. All our asses are probably getting bigger. There’s nothing to do here but wait for the next meal. The food is so mediocre I’m never tempted to overeat. In any case, second helpings are not offered. Our keepers have apparently calculated how much food is necessary to keep us alive.
When you first come to this place, you go through a predictable arc of emotions—surprise, disbelief, anger, and so on—well-documented by psychologists as inevitable steps leading to acceptance. We might not know our own place on the scale, but it’s easy to see where others are. Good-looking Steve is stuck in anger. He’s the one who got Hector to help him drag our beds to the center of the room to create a scaffold he could climb, looking for an escape route. A day or so later he made us all furious at him by breaking the conveyor belt and preventing food delivery for the rest of the day.
That night I go to bed hungry and unsettled, wondering how our keepers will deal with the situation. Does our fate now include cannibalism and starvation? My senses alert to cues I would normally miss, I hear Laura gently snoring beyond the curtain to my right. Across the room one of the men rearranges himself in bed, making the frame squeak. My eyes, awake and dark-adapted, can see that our “sky” is not entirely devoid of light. There is a faint but discernible glow to this night sky, though lacking stars. Why couldn’t they give us stars?
Toward morning, I suppose it is, I hear a low rumble and raise up on one elbow to hiss at Laura but can’t raise her. I crawl to the foot of my bed and part the curtains. Now I can hear something else, a faint ping of metal on metal. They’re working on the conveyor. I discern a narrow shaft of horizontal light along the floor and realize there must be a partition of some kind between us and the alcove that houses the conveyor system. Our caretakers are repairing the damage Steve caused. I return to my pillow feeling oddly relieved. So, it’s a benign authority that imprisons us? They do not intend to see us starve, but will they save us from other calamities? Boredom, for example? Violence. Illness. What if one of us dies? Will our body be discreetly removed while the others sleep?
I decide the information about the hidden panel is too valuable to share. Our breakfast trays roll out as usual and, to my amazement, no one remarks on the miraculous recovery of the conveyor belt.
Because Laura insists we are inmates in an asylum, she suggests that we form a little self-help group. Five of us oblige her and pull our chair into a circle to talk about ourselves. I tell them about the power failure and my suspicion that the grid throughout Austin, indeed Texas and the entire country, has gone down. I detect only polite interest from my fellow inmates. I describe the days of chaos and panic, how we looted the stores for water and food that wasn’t spoiled, how even that ran out. And how, after days of despair and desperate for water, I abandoned the house that had ceased to be a refuge and set off on the long trek that somehow brought me to this place.
My goal was the lake, which is actually the dammed-up Colorado River. I envisioned plunging my face into the water and drinking my fill. I found the streets clogged with other half-crazed sojourners desperate with thirst. I overtook people pushing wheel chairs and bent over walkers who cried out to the able-bodied to bring water back to them. Humanity compelled me to acknowledge their cries, but as thirst consumed me, my ears grew deaf to the supplicants, even the youngest. What could I do for them when I myself was dying?
“And so you finally reached the lake?” Laura asks when I fall silent.
“The water was delicious. I met a woman named Celeste.”
I wouldn’t tell them how it ended, how I was attacked by a man crouched behind ornamentals at the lake’s edge. The woman Celeste happened on the scene as my attacker had me pinned to the ground ripping at my jeans. She struck a blow to his temple and I scrambled to my feet and took the large piece of karst limestone from her hand and hit him again while he was stunned. And then I continued to hit him until he was dead.
As if sensing what I leave unsaid, Hector pushes his chair out of the circle. “I don’t wanna do this no more.”
“That’s fine,” Laura says in a soothing therapist voice. “You can rejoin us later if you change your mind, Hector.” She turns to me. “Libby, why would this man attack you? Surely he was as thirsty and hungry as yourself.”
“No, he wasn’t. Predators take other people’s food and water. In the normal scheme of things, people like that are kept in check by the law, but this was anarchy, chaos, law of the jungle.”
“Hmmm,” she says, noncommittally. “Good thing this woman Celeste happened on the scene, then.”
“She wasn’t a woman,” Chelsea whispers, her first utterance. “She was an angel, a celestial being.”
“Nope. Flesh and blood,” I reply, annoyed.
“You don’t believe in God,” Chelsea says. “You don’t believe in anything.”
“That’s right. But it should be clear to even you that god is not in charge of this place.” Too young to be an existentialist, Chelsea probably believes she’s fetched up in Hell’s own waiting room.
“Please, ladies,” Laura admonishes, “let’s support one another. This is Libby’s truth she’s sharing. We must respect other people’s reality.”
“Well, I’m no Texan,” Patti drawls, “but your power failure thingie didn’t make it to Nevada. Didn’t hear about it on the news, either. What kind of writing did you say you do? Sci-fi?”
“Science. There is a difference.”
I notice that Chelsea is fighting back tears. Maybe I was a little harsh. I have so little patience with religious nuts.
“Do you wish to speak, dear?” Laura asks her. She shakes her head no. “What about you, Patti?”
“I’m not saying anything.” Patti gestures with a shoulder at the ceiling overhead. “They listen to every word we say.”
“Who listens?” Charles demands. He’s also young, late teens, early twenties. He was a college student before coming here.
“That’s not for me to say.” Patti turns her face away from him.
Charles is the only male to sit through the whole session, though he has little to contribute. Like so many of his generation, he prefers to engage with others through the medium of a digital screen. He misses his phone and his mother, in that order.
There was no power failure in Arizona either, he reports. Like Laura, his entry into our unbrave new world has a medical component. He was running for a touchdown for Arizona State when he took a hard tackle and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He’s heard of a secret laboratory on campus run by a brilliant but eccentric scientist. He’s convinced he’s fallen into this man’s clutches and become the subject of an elaborate experiment. His eyes travel around the circle and come to rest on me.
“Look, can we just have a time-out so I can call my parents and let them know I’m okay?”
The whole futile exercise suddenly bores me. “What difference does it make if you live out your life under a microscope, Charlie? Your world is virtual anyway. And why do you assume that it’s all about you? Maybe I’m in your experiment.”
“Let’s not be unkind,” Laura says.
“You’re not helping, Laura. And you’re not a therapist. As far as I can tell, you’ve never held a real job in your life.”
“I managed a household. I raised three children. I consider that a valuable contribution.”
“Valuable? You are part of the problem, lady. Over-population of the planet led to the predicament we’re in. Obviously a superior life form swooped in and took charge. Or maybe the fucking North Koreans nuked us.”
Chelsea can no longer contain her tears. She raises her hands to the pitiless dome overhead and cries out, “Oh, Lord, oh, Lord, why hast thou forsaken me? Have pity on my soul! Save me! Save me!” To our astonishment, she begins speaking in a foreign language, although I soon realize it’s gibberish, glossolalia, a phenomenon I’ve only read about. Laura gets up and goes behind Chelsea’s chair to awkwardly pat her on the shoulder. You’d think a professional mom would be better handing out the warm fuzzies.
“Um, thank you, everyone. Next time maybe Steve will join us?”
“Oh, give it a rest, Laura.” I go to my bed to wait for lunch.
A few days later I walk by Patti’s closed curtain and hear an insistent pssst!
“Are you calling me?”
“Shhh!” She pulls me into her bay. She’s on her bed with the sheet tented over her head. “They can’t see us in here.”
“Aren’t you being just a bit paranoid?”
“Not the humans. Them,” she points upward. “I’ve ascertained their microphones aren’t sensitive enough to pick up whispers.”
I decide to play along and join her under the sheet. It’s rather agreeable, like sleep-overs when I was a child. In fact, it’s downright restful to be shielded—if not from the unblinking washed-out eye overhead—from the constant, though bored, scrutiny of our fellow seven. “So, what are we hiding from, Patti? Little green men?”
“You’re a skeptic?”
“In the absence of proof, skepticism is all I have. What do the wee green ones hope to gain keeping us penned up this way?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Or, if Charles is right and we’re living in the middle of a giant petri dish, what is the mad scientist trying to prove? How quickly he can make human beings go bonkers when totally deprived of art? I’d kill for paper and pencil. Aren’t you bored out of your skull?”
She shook her head. “I lead a rich inner life.”
“Does everybody in Nevada believe in alien abduction?”
“I dare you to explain it any other way.”
“I have to admit the alien explanation fits better than Chelsea’s devils and angels.”
“I admire your courage to believe in nothing. Does your science-based view of life offer any comfort?”
“Science isn’t about comfort. It’s about asking the right questions. And hey, here’s one for you. What route did you take to the loony bin?”
Elfin in size and appearance, Patti has a headful of curly salt-and-pepper hair, an old/young hippie. “Don’t tell the others, okay?”
Why does she think she can trust me? I nod uneasily.
“I was driving home from seeing my mother in Salt Lake. I was exhausted but determined to get home before having to pay for a motel room for the night—I’m on a limited income. I was on the desert, miles from anything, making good time. In fact, I was doing about 80. I hadn’t passed another car for miles when lights came up behind me, right on my bumper. I was blinded by the reflection in the rearview mirror. I figured it was the highway patrol, but I was too scared to stop. You know the kind of thoughts that go through a woman’s head when she’s traveling alone at night.”
“I fought off a creep myself before washing up on these shores.”
“Finally the light was so bright I couldn’t see the road ahead and had to stop.”
“And it was a flying saucer?”
“No. I told you. It was light, pure light. I woke up in this place.”
“Maybe you crashed your car on the desert. Chelsea thinks we’re all dead waiting to get into heaven. Charles saw a bright light when he got his concussion, and Laura mentioned it, too, the bright lights over her operating table. I think Hector’s been in prison. Do you sense that?”
“You’re only saying that because he’s a young Hispanic male.”
“I’m as liberal as the next person! No, it’s just that he reminds me of someone I met down by the river.”
“I rather thought you were leaving something out of your story.”
“Funny, isn’t it? That was only days ago, but it seems like years. Einstein predicted we would experience time differently when we moved away from the earth’s surface.”
“Then you agree we’re hurtling through space?”
“We were always hurtling through space, my dear. Only now our spaceship is this big stupid room. The oddest thing about it is that we share the illusion. I never put any stock in that New Age crap about individual consciousness being a fragment of a greater whole.”
“I think it makes perfect sense.”
I sweep the sheet off my head and study the pale blue fake sky. I’m beginning to be able to tell time from that thing. “Supper will be along shortly. I’m going to wash up.”
“Don’t eat the dessert.”
“Why not? It’s the only decent part of the meal.”
“That’s where they hide the soma.”
That makes me giggle. “Soma! I haven’t heard that word in years. To make us sleep?”
“When did you ever sleep so deeply, so dreamlessly?”
“Sleeping and eating are the only things to do in this place.”
“So, you don’t intend to resist?” Patti whispers.
“Look where Steve’s fit of pique got us. We all went to bed hungry.”
“I thought you had more spirit, Libby.”
“Yeah, well I pick my battles. Look, if we’re headed to a distant galaxy—or even to the backside of the moon—escape means certain death. Has it occurred to you that whatever’s on the other side of the door might be worse than what’s on this side?”
“Maybe it’s better.”
“Do you have the right to take that risk for all of us?”
“The right and the duty.”
“Don’t tell me what you’re planning. I might have to stop you.”
No books. No paper and pen, no stars in the sky, no dreams when we sleep. We’re just bodies now, being kept alive like bugs in a jar. We don’t know why. We’re beginning to forget our past. I asked Hector if he had been in prison and he said he couldn’t remember. He may not be lying. I can’t remember my own husband’s face. I can conjure up Ian’s glasses and the shape of his mouth, how his ears were set on his head, but I can’t put the bits together and visualize his face.
Ian is dead. The thought should fill me with sorrow, but instead I can only think that he was one of the lucky ones. They’re all dead, my own parents, my in-laws and cousins, my old neighbors in Cedarcrest, and all those people I pushed past on my way to the river. Yet somehow I survived, as did six others with whom I now share this dream we call life. We are seven, the only humans left on the planet. We’ve been given false memories, unreliable pasts. I do not believe that Laura lay on an operating table, not unless she died there. Nor do I believe that Patti survived her encounter with pure light on a Nevada highway. Or that Chelsea and the others survived. We seven were simultaneously rescued and damned.
But who did the rescuing, who the damning? The light above my bed is brightest at mid-morning. I spread my hands and see the pinkish glow as light passes through the thinnest tissue. The red is blood coursing through my veins. I am alive. I am human. My brain houses real memories. Still.
We are stunned when our breakfast trays roll out and Laura’s contains not only the usual nasty-looking oatmeal and watery coffee, but a ball of blue yarn and a pink plastic crochet hook. I say that it is Laura’s tray, for we’ve sorted ourselves into a kind of pecking order, based not entirely on age, although Steve makes mocking reference to “age before beauty” when he defers to Laura. She does carry herself with a certain dignity, but is by no means our leader, she of the unwanted advice and questionable wisdom. If the order in which we claim our trays were determined by brute strength, Steve would go first, as he daily buffs his already studly physique with a brutal exercise regimen. Patti takes the third tray. I follow her, then Hector, Charles, and finally Chelsea Jump-if-anyone-says-boo. (The meek shall inherit the earth!)
I know Laura is surprised by the yarn, but she pretends otherwise. “Ah, there’s my yarn,” she murmurs. Patti gives me a knowing look—see, they are listening. Since our tete-a-tete under the bedsheet, we’ve had no further congress.
As we seat ourselves around the long table in the center of the room to eat our breakfast, I wonder if the others are thinking what I am. Will the heavens smile on me next? Will tomorrow’s breakfast tray bring paper and pen? Steve has publicly longed for better coffee. Patti refuses to say anything about her desires, but she would probably ask for tarot cards or a crystal. Hector would like to get his dick back in working order. Charles pines for his missing iPhone. And little Chelsea has said more than once that she wishes, above all else, to read her Bible again.
Some days the conveyor delivers clean sheets and towels and, without further prodding, we dutifully strip our beds and place the soiled linens on the belt for removal. Even the least physical activity leads to ennui, and I retire to my bay to wait for lunch. I tell myself that, like Steve, I’m keeping fit, mentally at least, working on the article that presumably still resides on the laptop back in my home office.
The speed of light traveling from chip to chip in a microprocessor is the same as light traveling from a distant star to arrive on the human retina, 299,792,458 meters per second. My mind teems with observations about this inalterable law of physics, and my reading has armed me with brilliant literary references, but, lacking the means to preserve sentences, I’m stuck on the first: The speed of light in a vacuum is denoted by a lowercase c, for “constant” or the Latin celeritas meaning “swiftness, celerity.” I revise the sentence over and over in my mind and can’t move on. When did I cease to be able to think in paragraphs?
I’ve begun scratching a tiny mark on the wall with my thumbnail every night—or what passes for night in our diminished world—the marks hidden by my pillow in the “day time.” By this crude calculation, it’s been a week since Laura’s wish was granted. That first day, after replacing her tray on the conveyor, she returned to her chair and, over the course of the morning, created a peculiar blue webbed thing out of the yarn. I thought that would be an end to it, but the next morning she ripped out her stitches, reconstituted the ball of yarn, and started all over again. She’s made and destroyed the patch of blue every day since.
There have been no further favors dispensed. Hope gave way to disappointment and now to exhausted resignation. The skein of blue has become as frayed as our good will. You will surely fault us for not organizing ourselves to combat a mutual enemy, but we don’t agree, firstly, that there is an enemy, and secondly, on the nature of that enemy. Only Patti plots rebellion. She follows me into the bathroom and whispers that the soma isn’t in the dessert after all.
“I haven’t noticed you pushing away dessert,” I reply.
“Slept like a baby.”
“Maybe it’s in the ‘meat substitute,’ then.”
“I’ve eliminated each food they serve at night. It’s not in the food. It’s in the water.”
I give her a closer look and notice that she’s losing weight, starving herself. That’s one way to escape this place.
“Well, there you go. We have to drink the water, don’t we?”
I notice that Chelsea is crying less these days and I wonder if it’s because of Charles. I catch glances darted across the room between those two and feel their heightened awareness of one another at table. Other than being at least a decade younger than the rest of us, they don’t seem to have much in common, Jesus freak and jock. But perhaps youth is enough. Is that what our caretakers hope to accomplish housing male and female together? That we multiply? God help us.
Steve is the one I can’t figure out. A fit black male who shows no inclination to buddy up with the other guys, Hector and Charles, or to build bridges with the women. One morning, at the end of his long grueling workout, I sidle over to his side of the room. He is stripped to the waist, shiny with sweat, breathing heavily. He eyes me warily.
“What sort of exercise would you recommend for a couch potato?” I ask.
“I don’t make recommendations.”
“I probably couldn’t follow your advice anyway. My legs feel like jello. I should do something, I guess.” He shrugs. It’s really nothing to him if I fall apart. “I notice you do the same work-out every morning and a different one in the afternoon.”
“Different muscle set.”
His gaze is flat, faintly hostile, gives nothing away. I feel I am trespassing, but I am emboldened by how little I have to lose. “What did you hope to gain breaking the conveyor belt?”
His eyes narrow. “I don’t talk to snitches.”
“Who’s a snitch? Who would I snitch to?”
“I know your tricks,” he warns. “Look, I mind my own business and don’t cause trouble for nobody. So, leave me alone.” He heads to the men’s shower.
I turn around to find five pairs of eyes on me. The others hastily return to their occupations, which is to say, nothing at all, except for Laura, who digs the pink hook into a blue loop with renewed ferocity. “You’re going to wear that shit out,” I tell her.
“Libby, please! I wish you wouldn’t use such language.”
“And I wish I could strangle you, but it would be so pointless.”
My attempt to engage Steve hasn’t panned out, but for some reason makes Hector more simpatico. “Don’t mess with him. He’s a bad dude.”
“You make it sound like this is a prison exercise yard.”
“Sure as hell can’t walk out, can you? I know why you’re in. You killed your husband.”
“You don’t know anything about Ian! My husband died with the rest of them.”
He looks away. “Tell it to the judge.”
“You were at the river that day.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, lady.”
“It was your head I bashed in with a rock.”
“You’re crazy. You deserve to be locked away.”
In my dream I am fighting my way through a crowd. I’m losing ground and in danger of being trampled. I elbow and punch. I scream. My eyes are wide but my pupils detect not a glimmer of light. For a moment I’m back in my own bed seeking in vain the tiny beacons that signal the presence of a smoke detector, power cord, alarm clock. Extinguished, all. The power has been cut. Blood surging through my heart roars in my ears. Fear disables my limbs. Desperate for light, my eyes roam the inky blackness around me. I am panting, whimpering. I feel the mattress distort under me and a warm hand touch my calf.
“Hush. It’s only a dream. You don’t want to bring him in here.”
The black void shrinks to human scale and panic recedes. I recognize Chelsea’s voice. “Who would come in here?”
“Don’t say his name,” she whispers, urgent.
“Go back to sleep.”
And I do. In the morning I pick up my breakfast tray and realize that at least one of my wishes has come true. I had a dream. I won’t wish that again. Part of the dream was that Chelsea came over to my bed and told me who she thinks is in charge here. The Devil.
Patti is gone. Generally, Laura waits till we’re all assembled before taking her tray. Standing at the head of the conveyor, she peers around expectantly. Both bathroom doors stand open. Patti’s curtain is closed.
“She overslept,” Laura says.
For some reason she singles me out to go check on her. I yank the curtain aside, exposing a lump-filled bed. It’s apparent the spread hides only a pillow and rucked-up sheet. I walk over to the “door” and run my hands along the surface where door meets jamb, looking for some sign that it recently opened. The others watch, mute, then Steve says brusquely, “C’mon. You’re third now.” I take my tray and look more closely at the small opening through which our trays and all other essentials must pass. Is it large enough to allow a small bulimic female to squeeze through? I count the trays and see there are only six. The kitchen staff knew that Patti would not be eating with us.
Though her departure leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of an already attenuated existence, we do not talk about Patti. I sense the same unease and dread in others that I feel in myself. We’re like children who have done something naughty, waiting for punishment we know will come. We may agree on little else about our overlords, but we do know to fear them.
Laura rips out yesterday’s pattern of crochet stitches and begins rewinding her blue yarn. Charles and Chelsea return to the table, seated across from each other, and draw patterns on the surface with their fingers, invisibly texting. They’ve learned to communicate in this fashion. Hector sits on the floor with his back against his bunk staring idly at “the sky.” Steve starts his morning workout. I go back to bed.
Though I pretend to sleep, my brain is teeming with questions. Did Patti make a clean break? Or will she emerge from behind her curtain in the morning with no memory of having escaped? Maybe she didn’t escape, but was removed before she could carry out her plans. Or, she died, a victim of self-starvation, and they removed her body during the night, as I anticipated they would should any of us die. Despite the fear and dread, I also feel a flutter of hope, the first I’ve felt since coming to this place. On her own terms or not, Patti is gone and she left me clues how to follow, although they’ve surely plugged that particular security flaw.
Greater than physical cowardice is my fear of what lies on the other side. Maybe it’s better, Patti said. If only she could send word.
The tiny hash marks behind my pillow are almost too numerous to count. It’s been weeks since Patti left us. There are two empty beds now. When fresh linens and other supplies come through the chute, provision is made for only six. I’ve given up expecting the extra beds to be filled. Attrition will gradually thin out our number till only one remains. I hope it’s not me.
“Sir, I think #3 might emerge in the next day or so.”
“What have you picked up?”
“Nothing overt—she’s not the action-oriented type—but her sleep pattern is beginning to normalize. This morning’s chart shows a brief but definite REM cycle.”
“Excellent! Well, keep an eye on her and let me know if anything changes. It might be time to send in a little encouragement.”
“Paper and pencil, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. She was a writer.”
“What about #1? Did the yarn have any impact?”
“Nothing so far. Sorry, but I thought for sure….”
“We’ll think of something. All right. I’m off.”
Although I’ve grown accustomed to the alien sky over planet Eden, starless and moonless as she is, I yearn for the big starry Texas sky. Maybe it was that night on Enchanted Rock with Ian, feeling the tug of those stars, some man-made, that led me to put my name on the list. Or maybe it was losing Ian so early, so unexpectedly, knowing there was nothing left for me there. What fitting tribute to escape Earth’s surly bonds in a rocket that Ian had a small part in designing!
When I emerged, as they call it at the Center for Integrative Research, I met third and fourth- generation Edenics for the first time. The Center has taken the lead in establishing best practices for dealing with the slow trickle of pioneers who arrive from the home planet. I volunteer one day a month, paying forward the generosity shown me as I emerged from the long hibernation required of space travel and the subsequent psychosis of the traveler’s extended dreamless state. We lost only one member of our capsule, which accounts for that empty eighth bed. Six of our seven were successful emergents, the youngest two, Charles and Chelsea, adapting more easily than did Steve, Hector, and me. You might be wondering how their budding romance played out. Young love proved fickle, and, in any case, breeding age adults are encouraged to widen the gene pool by mating with native-born Edenics.
We can thank Steve for fashioning a battering ram from a bedframe and ending our self-imposed imprisonment. Ready or not, we followed him out of the room and into the welcoming arms of CIR volunteers. Laura was unable to recover a functioning memory and remains at the Center. I visit occasionally and take her yarn. It would console her to have a cat, but, of course, there are no cats on this newly colonized planet.
For me, memory is a work in progress. Sometimes I’m engaged in a homely domestic chore when the synapses fire and memory plays like a dusty reel on an antique machine. This morning as I rinsed out a glass I suddenly remembered standing at the window in my old kitchen watching a hummingbird at the nectar bottle and calling Ian to come see.
Some recovered memories are joyful things. Others make me blue for days, reminding me that the journey was a one-way trip. Oh, darling Earth, how I loved you.