15.7.06

A Story About Baggage

Well, this is what I wrote for this week’s prompt at Sunday Scribblings: another story. Interestingly, as an only child, I think this is the first time I have ever given the main character in one of my stories a sibling. I have probably made all sorts of embarrassing mistakes, such as failing to include the secret brother-sister handshake.

With Baggage

A small bird lies dead on the grass and the sky is alight with flame. I remove the special film from its protective envelope and watch as it turns from green to blue, then purple, red, and finally black. I stuff it carelessly into my pocket and look around.

The silence is absolute, almost invasive. The street is deserted - driveways empty, curtains drawn. An endless stream of rubbish blows along the road: plastic bags, fast food containers, newspapers, cardboard boxes. We are the last ones remaining. The last ones to go. I look up at the sky, at the mess of fire and shooting stars. It is a big and powerful explosion. It only seems to move so slowly because the distances are immense. Well, I say that, but the radiation moves quickly enough. We can’t stay any longer. The breeze is icy on my skin. I shiver.

My sister Alison leans out of the doorway and coughs loudly. “Get the ---- inside, now.”

I stroll over to the front door, casually. “You spent long enough out here this morning.”

“We need to pack,” is all she says.

I follow her in. She has a heap of stuff in the hallway already. Pared down to her most beloved possessions. This isn’t about taking the most essential things for the journey. There’s no need to take food or supplies. Its about the things that matter most to you. The things you cannot bear to part with. Because once we leave, we will never be able to come back.

I can’t help but rummage through her stuff, just a little, just stirring gently through the surface. On top is a small black case. I open it. Tangled together inside are her favourite items of jewellery: those lovely diamond earrings, the white gold necklace mum got her shortly before cancer took her from us, her engagement ring from the folly with John. Beneath that, a heap of clothes: the dress from her sixth form ball, her school football strip, that ugly halter top she’s always liked so much. A few cuddly toys, such as George the dragon and Blue Teddy. I smile as I remember holding Blue Teddy over a hot cooking ring and demanding ransom. Mum was livid when Alison told on me. That was Alison, she never cared about being a snitch.

I leap into the air as she jabs me in the back with a rigid thumb.

“Are you going to pack or what?” she asks.

I shrug, feeling small under her gaze. She’s still very much my older sister. “I’m not packing.”

She rolls her eyes. She keeps herself contained, always, but I know the strong emotions that must be bubbling just beneath the surface. “We have to go,” she says. “We’ll die if we stay. Besides, Marie is waiting for you there.”

“I know. I’m going. I’m just not packing.”

She looks me right in the eye. For a second I think she is going to cry. But she just shakes her head at me. “You idiot. You’ll regret it. What about… what about those stupid miniatures of yours?”

“What’s the point? I want to keep those things, but I’d be leaving them behind anyway.”

“Not this again.” She sighs. “Fine whatever. We both know that this is stupid, but you do whatever you want. You’re a grown up now. Just be in the living room in half an hour.”

We both know that this is stupid, she says. She thinks this is stupid, but as older sister and head of the family she gets to declare that this opinion is concrete and objective. She wants to change my mind, but she’d have to change who I am to do that. That is concrete and objective, and I’m sure she knows, deep down. But still we have these arguments. I guess I should expect us to have arguments now more than at any other time.

I head up into my room and look around. Everything is coloured strangely by the fire in the sky, but it is my room all right. Still, beneath the familiarity lies a certain tension, the knowledge that the air is alive with deadly radiation and we must leave as soon as we can, even as we stay behind so that my sister can grasp at her memories.

And suddenly I feel a surge of anger. Of course I want to keep all this with me. I hate having to leave it behind. I feel tears welling up. I want to punch something or fall down and sob. But I can’t take it with me. Not really. And Alison just has to face up to the fact that as much as it may seem like it, she won’t be taking anything with her either.

I step up to the window and the line of plant pots there. Most of all, I’d want to take my houseplants with me. Exotic and strikingly distinctive, I assembled their genomes myself in school, got an A. But they have all died and are already withering away. Flowers that were once shimmering rainbows are now grey and flaking apart. The thought of that happening to my own body forces me to look away.

The most prominent feature in my room by far is the book case. Crammed with pulpy nonsense and towering works of imagination and everything in between. I grab something, I don’t care what, I open it and press my nose into the fold, breathing in the smell - the smell of books. I suppose that smell is just the smell of paper and glue and ink, eminently easy to recreate. But I place the book back on the shelf carefully, resolving never to touch another book again. There’s no need for paper in Quantum City. I’ll have all these stories and more. But the books, the objects themselves, will be forever lost to me. The intangible part - the story - is the most important part, of course. But I feel sad because it is the intangible part of the book, the object that is the book, it is that intangible thing that I am going to lose forever.

Now that I think about it, Alison may have the right idea anyway. That intangible part of the book exists in me, not in the book itself. It is unique to me. So Alison can certainly take her belongings to Quantum City in some sense. What am I saying? That’s what I’ve been thinking all along - I don’t need to pretend to take these things with me in material form, I have the memories, the indentations they have left on my personality. I just don’t feel like playing pretend on top of that. I am happy to take the important bits with me, inside my mind. But still…

On the top shelf of my bookcase sit the rows and rows of miniatures, assembled by my own hands. Half a century of space flight in tiny plastic form, ordered chronologically. On the furthest right sit a little huddle of the current generation of automated spacecraft, part of the interplanetary production line that pulls asteroids into Earth orbit and fashions them into more of the immense and exotic structures that make up the ever expanding Quantum City. One of this group is a replica of the same kind of tug that exploded over Europe yesterday, its antimatter engines showering a whole hemisphere with noxious particles.

I reach carefully into the midst of the little ships and grab just one in particular. A big, long-ranged craft from the peak of the manned space program, two vast wheels spinning in opposite directions around its middle; radiation shield splayed open at the front; ugly, fat engines wrapping around its stern. Long before I was born, this one. Back when people crewed ships like this to explore the solar system with their frail bodies, soaking up radiation like sponges and rapidly wasting away in the low gravity. They thought it was worth it. Mum got me this model kit for my twelfth birthday. I would put it together much better now, as an adult, but its wonkiness, the splodges of dried glue that bulge from its seams - that’s what makes it so sentimental.

I look at the clock. Time to go. Holding the miniature carefully, I take the stairs two at a time and leap into the lounge. Alison is slumped on the sofa by the scanner, its bucket sized container open. The computer is on, holographic screen alight with colours.

I show her the miniature. “This,” I say, not wanting to give her the sense of victory she might glean if I explain what I mean to do with it, although she knows anyway. I place it in the bucket and press a button on the keyboard. My miniature flickers red with laser beams for a moment, and then it is done. I remove it from the bucket and set it down carefully on the computer desk.

“Did you scan all your stuff?” I ask her.

She nods. “Yeah. It was pretty exhausting really.”

There are black rings around her eyes. Her shoulders are covered in shed hairs. She spent a long time outside this morning. “Are you okay?” I ask her.

“Yeah,” she says weakly. “Dizzy. I think we should go soon.”

I nod. “Let’s just get one last look at the house, though.”

She sighs, but gets up anyway. She stands slowly, swaying on her feet. I take her arm. She leans on me heavily as we leave the house. I look up at the blood red sky and the gorgeous, deadly mess that fills it. “It’s gotten bigger,” I say.

“Yeah,” she agrees.

“Isn’t it funny? It was silent inside, but it’s only when you come outside and it’s still silent that it starts to feel eerie.”

We are the last ones remaining. We look around. It’s the same old street, sort of. Usually unchanged except for the different bits of rubbish blowing through it, now the overgrown gardens are turning yellow and withering. Same houses though, same road with the same layout. Almost impossible to believe that just being here is killing us.

Alison points to the darkened house next door. “Do you remember when we snuck in there?” she says with a smile. “Mum grounded us for a month.”

I laugh. This has always been a ritual. Alison knows how terrified I was when, eight years old, I came face to face with the desiccated corpses of our neighbours, sitting side-by-side on their sofa and hooked up to their computer. But still, she brings it up, teases me about it. Over time all the neighbours ended up the same. We are the last ones to leave.

We’re not luddites, of course. We go to Quantum City all the time. It’s like our second home. We know our way around - much as you can know your way around a place like that. But we just liked to come back here - to have our home here, even as all our friends lived there. Marie has lived in Quantum City since she was a child. Her child’s body has probably long since wasted away to dust in whatever third world hovel her family once scraped a living in.

And that’s it I suppose. Anyone can choose to go to Quantum City. But not everyone has the choice of coming back. Like with mum.

Alison coughs wetly into her hand and tries to hide the blood on her palm from me. I pretend I haven’t noticed and help her back to the living room. She falls onto the sofa heavily and I take the long fibre optic lead from the computer and connect it to the modem socket behind her ear.

“You’ll be right behind me?” she says, her voice a whisper.

I manage a smile. “Of course.”

I race over to the keyboard, not willing to waste another second. We took too long as it was. I hit the return key and watch as her consciousness uploads to Quantum City. I go back to her body and feel for a pulse. It is still alive. But I doubt it will be for much longer. Taking her outside like that was a stupid risk, a waste of precious time. But I guess you don’t leave all this behind easily. And she made it okay. I remove the lead from her socket and push it into my own, feeling as it connects correctly to the machinery in my head and links the computer to my brain.

I’d be crazy not to check one last time, though. I pull another envelope from my pocket, open it, and watch the film inside turn black. Just to really make sure, I open up the little leaflet inside and read it again. Yep. Black for a lethal dose of radiation. You walk around just fine for a while, even as your body is breaking down and failing.

I have a few more hours of life left in this place, I think, but the weak state of Alison’s body has left me a little shocked. I will be so sad to leave. But I’m not about to die in this place. Not when no-one has to die anymore.

I tap on the keyboard and press return.

*

The city is alive with light. Shaped by pure imagination, it varies wildly across the skyline, from skyscrapers to castles, to crystal spires, to the surfaces of distant moons recreated in perfect real-time detail, to things with no name in any spoken language. There is hubbub and life, people of all shapes and size and forms - real and fantastic - race around, greet, sing and converse. And the craziest thing of all is how it feels perfectly real. Just like you’re standing there. Now that my body is dead, I guess I really am standing here, in the only sense that’s meaningful.

I meet Marie in a place that you have to visit to comprehend. She is wearing an ocean dress. Waves lap at her shoulders. She kisses me and hugs me tightly. “Are you okay?”

“I think so. I miss… I miss my house, and my books and plants.”

She smiles and points to the little spaceship I hold in my hand, a perfect replica of my poorly assembled model, accurate to the micrometre. “But you brought something with you.”

“Yeah. I did,” I say confidently.

She takes my arm and starts to lead me away. “Your mother’s having a special welcome dinner for the two of you. Now that you’ll be living here.”

I squeeze her waist and look up at the sky. In this place the sky is whatever colour you want it to be. I choose a light and sunny blue.

10 comments:

Heather said...

Very good. Very scary. I felt the atmosphere of the place.

Michelle said...

This is interesting. There is a novel I like called "Feed." You might enjoy it.

Pacian said...

Thank you Michelle, I've added it to my list of books to buy. For the record my favourite entires in the 'internet in your head' sub-genre are William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy and the Ghost in the Shell franchise. I heartily recommend Gibson, but GitS may require some nerd credentials. ;-)

Gemma said...

“What’s the point? I want to keep those things, but I’d be leaving them behind anyway.”
So true.

Colorsonmymind said...

This made me feel scared...and then peaceful. What great writing.

DuhhhBlond said...

very well written.. and really freaked me out.. I like your Himalayan cat pic, too.. looks just like mine, PowPow.. she's such a snob :)

susanna said...

So sad. At points I felt hopeless. But then there's the decision to live. And I couldn't help but think of the people from the villages surrounding Chernobyl.

sundaycynce said...

Whoao!!! I kept wanting to stop reading---this is not my genre of choice and it was making me a bit sad and uncomfortable. But I didn't stop 'til I finished. That's about as good a compliment as I know how to pay you.

briliantdonkey said...

I can't say this is really my genre of choice either. That said, i read it all the way to the end. I kept going at first telling myself 'that it was the polite thing to do.' However, at some point I realized and had to admit to myself that i really wanted to see how it ended. Nice job.

rob

Geosomin said...

Again...you have a knack for writing in a genre that is just my cup of coffee. It reminded me a bit of Gibson actually.
I kept wondering as I read "who maintains the system?" "How does it work?".
You've got some great ideas.