THEY changed everything that was important to us and to make us forget what THEY had done, THEY put something mysterious in the public water supply. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, people and places and objects that we’d lived with forever were given new names so that we’d no longer have connections to the old ones. By simply eliminating a letter or two and assigning a whole new meaning in Ikipedia, there was to be no association with the ast, only the future, no such sensation anymore as déjà vu (THEY’re just getting to the foreign vocabularies), no reason for emories because they were esterday and all that mattered was tomorrow. We came to know that when something changed, we were about to lose it.
We now occupied a planet called Eart. And not just Eart, but Eart Minor, THEY called it, because THEY’d found another livable planet that THEY named Eart Major. That was to be the next home for all of us once we’d completely destroyed Eart Minor. And that day wasn’t far off, THEY told us. We were to blame for everything bad, they said, but THEY would fix it, no hard feelings.
We knew. Those of us for whom the water wasn’t enough knew all of us would not be going. There were at least two people in my building who knew. Me and Barbara. I met her in the basement laundry room, fortuitously alone together. THEY didn’t like any of us alone together but THEY had only so many spies to go around.
It was when she mentioned the color of the water filling the washing machines that I suspected. “Looks like the sea,” she reflected as I slid my trade paper into the pay slot and the cold cryptic liquid began to fill the tub. She emembered that water hadn’t always been this color, that it used to be clear, innocuous, not this Adriatic misty blue, how the ocea looked when the hot sun in the cool sky beat down on it, before it turned brown and became something else. Such a pristine, peaceful shade of blue that made you want to drink it by the gallons, bathe in it twice a day.
I didn’t dare let on that I thought she was different, like me. “Hi, I’m Peter,” I said, extending a hand which she studied warily but didn’t shake. “I’ve not seen you before.”
Her hazel eyes met mine. “I just moved here…” she claimed, eerily evenly. She tossed her load in the dryer and inserted her currency to start the noisy thing tumbling. “From Hiladelphia,” she said louder, to be heard over the rumble. Her hesitation between statements gave her away. She had to stop and think about the newfangled name of the place she came from before she could say it.
“Welcome,” I said, spotting a cute pair of her underpants that had fallen to the floor during the transfer from the washer to the dryer. They were lacy and red. She stooped to pick them up.
She was pretty, didn’t have that empty, emotionless expression so many of us wore when the water had done its erasure job. We got very good at lying, playing dumb, those of us who emembered how to. I imagined her age around my own, but age didn’t apply to people anymore. THEY said chronology didn’t matter since we’d all feel young and peppy again after a while on Eart Major.
She wasn’t wearing a edding ing so I wished she was single like me. People weren’t allowed to arry anymore, arriage being an outdated institution. If you had one, you could stay with a pouse until one of you died, in which case there was no re-arriage, and so symbolic jewelry became obsolete. Pairs of people were frowned upon, any hint of collaboration strongly but tactfully discouraged. Hence, THEIR need for spies. Everywhere.
“Is there anything I can do to help you get settled?” I asked her. “Cuppa sugar? Secret admirer?” I ventured that by displaying a genuine sense of humor, in short supply, she’d know I wasn’t just anybody.
She put it on thick. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then she strolled out of the room with her empty yellow plastic basket and onto the elevator.
“If you’ll give me your apartment number,” I called after her, but the doors slid shut before she could hear me mutter, “I’d be glad to let you know when your laundry’s ready.” Bye.
Our landlady was one of THEIR spies and so it would have done me no good asking her about the recent tenant. There was only one uninhabited mailbox tag: 202. I didn’t want to seem like a total creeper so I let her go for a while, but that number orbited my brain like space debris for days.
You didn’t want to venture outside any more than you had to. The air was so glutinous with pollution and the constant odor of factory gases from the smelters and the plants that produced the chemicals for the water, the parts for the ships that soared to Eart Major, and all the provisions that were taken there in preparation for our arrival. Or so THEY told us.
These were the only industries on Eart Minor and if you worked, it was for one of them. Everything else was provided from storehouses of junk, cast-offs and recycles from those who’d already gone (or passed). Nothing was free because THEY didn’t want to strip the workers of self-esteem but everything was cheap. As for food and other commodities, there were places for those, too. Synthetic substitutes took the place of fresh vegetables and fruits, the soil so contaminated with toxic waste from the factories that nothing worth eating would grow in it. Consequently, no one was particularly healthy although workers usually got proper treatment and lived the longest.
I worked for the provision producers so I ate fairly well but had my sights set on space, specifically space travel. Being of somewhat sound mind still, I knew the only way I was going to get to Eart Major was if I were in the space program. An only child, my parents long dead, thank od, because I’d hate for them to see what’s become of this planet, I had no one to care about but myself. That’s how THEY wanted all of us, eventually, alone. And I wasn’t lucky enough to be rich. THOSE folks didn’t have a orry in the orld.
Speaking of od, whomever or whatever od was, it became a lesser being and wasn’t even capitalized when the name appeared in subversive print. No one was more important than THEY. All houses of worship were bulldozed, but despite THEIR vigorous attempts, it was very difficult for THEM to completely jettison od from the collective consciousness. Still, THEY never stopped trying.
I peered through the peephole of 202 and I heard a rustling through the gap at the floor, as if whatever was there was padding around in slippers. Tap t’ tap tap.
“Who’s there?” came the voice of the girl from the laundry room. I recognized it immediately because I still had emory. Memory.
“It’s me,” I whispered, “the laundry guy.”
She left me standing there.
“Are you going to let me in?” I asked.
“No. Go away,” she barked, the curiosity palpable in her voice. “I’m calling the landlord.”
Silence. Then I heard the chain slide on its track as a sliver of light spread between us. “What do you want?” she said, bracing the door tightly with her hands. I noticed her fingernails were polished. Nobody did that anymore. And they, too, were red.
I wedged my sturdy work boot into the fissure and flashed my flirty grin.
She slammed the door on my foot. “Cut the crap.” She had fire, this one, another red flag. With the ecosphere in its present mutant shape, nobody had much fire in their belly anymore, just jelly.
Suddenly, we heard landlady McCaskey downstairs. “Everything all right up there?” she brayed in that sickeningly saccharine tone of hers.
“Everything’s fine,” I said, calmly. “Just bringing mail that was delivered to my box by mistake.” Then I made heavy footfalls toward the elevator and pushed the up button. As the doors closed, I heard the hag retreat into her apartment.
“Please let me in. I won’t hurt you.”
She unshackled the door and opened it little by little. I saw her eyes first, more green than hazel, as if dealing with a madman turned them a shade different from what doing laundry did. And her hair, it was brown, like mine, but a dark, rich coffee color, shiny and clean. Hardly anything was clean and shiny these days. I started into her apartment and she stopped me with an outstretched arm. I smelled what used to be called perfume.
“I didn’t say you could come in,” she protested. “Tell me what you want and then promise me you’ll leave.” A promise was still a promise.
“I want to be your friend.”
Staring at me a moment, her pupils grew beneath flaring lids. Then her gaze darted to the empty hallway around me. “Come in,” she whispered. Her voice was different than it had been in the basement, almost riendly.
We sat across from each other at a little table in the kitchenette, far away from any windows. The blinds were drawn; there wasn’t much to look at on the street, no birds or trees or grass. We hadn’t seen a live flower for years. She asked if I wanted something to drink. I said I could do with a hiskey but she said THEY took her iquor away when she crossed the state line. Iquor wasn’t prohibited since they’d gotten rid of the real thing, closed all the iquor stores. But now it was associated only with iquorice, which didn’t mean much given that if anybody grew it or made it, it went to Eart Major. Besides, candy and sweets were being phased out.
“How did you know?” she asked me.
I didn’t have to answer. She tripped up by talking so openly to a stranger in the first place. “The problem with having memory is remembering what you miss,” I pined, like I was talking to a sychiatrist, “a sympathetic listener” (Ikipedia). “I miss books, history books. What do you miss?”
“I try not to think about those things. It just gets you into trouble, thinking.”
“But you must think about them. How could you not?”
“I miss not having to watch every word I say, of not being afraid of people, THEM,” she said, a look of disdain on her face.
“But we’re all working together to create a better place for ourselves,” I said sarcastically.
“So you don’t believe THEM either,” she accused, not as a question.
“Old lady McCaskey is one of THEM, you know.”
“I wonder if her usband knows.” At that we laughed. It felt good to laugh, especially after having been robotic for so long, pretending we hung on everything THEY said and accepted everything THEY did was for our own good.
“It scares me,” I began, “that we’ve forgotten so much. I haven’t used the water for years but there’s so much I can’t emember, remember.”
“I think I know what you mean,” she said gloomily, her head bowing toward the table, her elegant hands trembling there. I wanted to reach out and caress them but I didn’t, couldn’t, was accustomed to keeping a distance. I just nodded and smiled as warmly as I could, without counterfeiting it. She smiled back. She had a lovely mouth.
We talked quite a bit, and except for a few erstwhile words, comprehended each other. Then she said she had homework to do for her job, designing parts for the spaceship group, the one I wanted to work for. THEY recruited her.
My job for the provisioners involved fulfilling purchase orders in the warehouse. Virtually everything there ultimately made its way to the ships for transport to Eart Major. There were factories like Barbara’s and mine all over the country, and probably the orld, if the rest of it was still out there. THEY didn’t want us to be concerned with anything but ourselves and our jobs so we weren’t sure. Those of us who’d been converted didn’t care.
I longed to see Barbara again, but I worked nights and had to wait until the weekend. THEY were yet in the process of altering time perception and so it seemed like an eternity. I’d gone to her apartment and the laundry room but she wasn’t in either place so I sat outside on the steps and waited for her. Through the smog I saw her walking home carrying a bulging bag. Only those executives with the producers and the ship builders had cars. THEY told us cars were dangerous death traps and that we were lucky not to have to use them. There was safer public transportation for us. In truth, none of us could afford a car even if THEY let us have one.
Barbara and I said hello to each other, everybody was courteous, another side effect of the water. Happy-go-lucky Mr. McCaskey was in the lobby, replacing bulbs in the light fixtures. (They were the same brand as the ones my employer manufactured. By now, there was generally only one brand of every necessary thing.) From atop the ladder he waved at us with his free hand and shot us a lecherous wink that seemed to hypothesize that Barbara and I were lovers. Nobody, not even THEM, had a problem with sex between consenting adults. It was the only selfish pleasure we had left, and THEY wanted to keep us contented, albeit not barefoot and regnant. Women couldn’t have babies anymore so regnation (i.e., overcrowding of Eart Major) wasn’t an issue.
She invited me into her apartment and offered me a hiskey. I wasn’t surprised that she had contraband. I had a refrigerator full of meat meant for space. But I wondered why she didn’t share it with me on my first visit.
“I didn’t trust you then,” she confided.
“And now you do?” I watched her take the staples from the sack and there wasn’t one decent edible among them. “You know what would go great with this hiskey?” I said. “Two choice T-bones.” Barbara’s eyes went green again and she licked her luscious lips.
That night we had dinner by candlelight. It wasn’t meant to be romantic, THEY imposed a universal curfew and an energy embargo – all lamps out after nine pm. Afterwards, we sat close together on the couch and talked quietly. At one point, Barbara began to cry. I put my arm around her and drew her cheek to my chest. Her hair smelled better than anything. I wanted to kiss her. It was months since I’d been with a woman and that was a girl from work, so daft with the water which she drank by the buckets that I didn’t enjoy her at all.
“What do you think’s going to happen to us?” Barbara said softly, wiping away her tears with the collar of my shirt. I didn’t want to tell her, yet, what I believed. “Who do you think’s behind it?”
“You can bet the one percent have their hands in it. Who else can afford it?” They were the only ones allowed to vote and come and go as they pleased. They couldn’t own cars either but they always got where they needed to go and not by subway, bus or beat-up bike.
I thought a regular date might cheer her up so I suggested we go to a movie. THEY didn’t take away the multiplexes (though they’d fallen into disrepair) and these only played apocalyptic films so we’d be entertained by the horrific destruction of other civilizations and not think we had it so bad. Everyone, it seemed, was in on the gag. They didn’t know what Barbara and I knew. And we wondered how many others like us there were and where would we find them. In the dark of the theater, we speculated about the people seated around us. The man across the aisle jumped out of his seat every time something blew up on the screen. We guessed he must be one of us because people just didn’t react strongly to things nowadays. In the dark, he was safe. I spotted a skinny woman not eating her popcorn. If you paid for it, you ate it. Food was something you didn’t waste. “Maybe she’s going to take it home to her kids,” Barbara conjectured. “Maybe,” I said, though true generosity and thoughtfulness had gone-by-the-wayside here on Eart Minor.
Love still existed. THEY didn’t seem to have a problem with love. But you loved THEM for what THEY did for you. And you had a feeling akin to love for other people, that came with the water, unless you found a person who displayed dubious traits, like the man and the woman in the theatre. You turned in people like them, like Barbara and me.
We made our way home through the dense murk and at her apartment door, Barbara let me kiss her. Both of us felt something we liked and understood and we wanted to take it further. I spent the night and she made breakfast for us in the morning. I’d brought her a half dozen eggs from my stash. The yolks were green but they still tasted like eggs. We took for granted THEY put stuff in our food, too, but we had to eat to stay alive. I’m positive THEY were working on a cut-rate replacement for food. I heard things on my job.
I know sex with Barbara was good but the emory of it didn’t linger, probably because of the eggs, which did linger in the form of indigestion. Sex was just something you savored in the moment. Thank od, there were still such moments to be had. You never knew what THEY were going to take away next. Through it all, however, was THEIR constant crowing, plastered on billboards, on all the transportation vehicles, everywhere: “Eart Major – SOON,” three words superimposed over spectacular terrestrial vistas such as we’d never seen. Nobody could wait to get there: “Eaven on Eart.”
And like I said, I didn’t think THEY were taking everybody. Even with all THEIR reduction methods, there probably were millions of us left. It just wasn’t logical. Barbara said her plant completed only two or three ships a year and they accommodated on average 30 or 40 people at best. Multiply those numbers by all the largest cities that fabricated spacecraft and only a fraction of us were covered. No, the ships were meant for THEM and what became of us was of no consequence. My theory made sense to Barbara but to her way of increasingly deluded thinking, there was nothing we could do about it and as long as THEY met our basic needs, why should we try? I became deeply concerned that Barbara was falling victim to THEIR conspiracy. She was a little more docile and dopey every day. I don’t know how she functioned at work but at home, she scared me.
“Eat only what I give you,” I warned her, “and stay away from the water.”
“But I’ve got to bathe,” she insisted.
“Stop it,” I ordered.
She smiled, which really scared me. Usually, people, normal people, are taken aback when you yell at them. I took her by the shoulders and shook her, which caused her to be sick to her stomach. After vomiting, she was almost Barbara again.
“Don’t you want to be yourself?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure I know who that is anymore,” she said, welling up, which gave me hope. Where there’s doubt, there’s hope.
It took a few weeks but Barbara became more affectionate with me, even admitted she was falling in love. And it wasn’t THEIR kind of love. This delighted me because I’d already fallen for her that night at the movies. Finally, I felt completely at ease, enough to share my plan with her.
It was during dinner at my place. I’d scored a couple pork chops from the meat division. (We had no idea pigs were processed anywhere until we unloaded a ton of pork on the dock.) “Do you think you could get me on at the ship works?” I asked nonchalantly. I must have sounded like the sleepwalkers because everyone had that blasé way of speaking, even while life as we knew it was going to ell in a handbasket.
“What?” she twisted her head and mouth like a dog trying to cognize its master. (Pets were extinct but I had one as a child – The name Spot comes to mind, or it could have been Sport.) “Why on Eart would you want to do that?”
“If I worked there, I could observe how THEY do things, see if there’s a way we could get passage on one of the ships, before it’s too late.”
“Peter, you can’t be serious.” She stared intently at me for a second. “You are serious, aren’t you?”
“I’ve heard that people, people like us, have gotten themselves on the list. I’ve even heard of runaways.”
“I’ve heard those stories too, and that’s all they are, Peter, stories to frighten us, keep us in our place…There’s never a happy ending.”
I took her in my arms. “I’ve finally found someone I want to spend the rest of my life with. Don’t you feel that way about me, Barbara?”
She started to pull away but I held her tighter.
“Tell me you don’t feel that way too, and I’ll give up the idea.”
She was quiet, turned toward the window, to the sinister stillness outside, the building across the street obscured by the ever-present gritty haze, the dull gray sky exhausted of clouds. Where were THEY getting the water? “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
My boss wasn’t keen to let me go but THEY wanted you to contribute where you were most useful to THEIR cause and he concurred I was wasted filling orders. Before THEY transferred me, I had to complete a written assessment of my intelligence, undergo a test of my motor skills, and sit through a lengthy interview that manipulated me into saying a heap of words and names that had been changed to determine the degree to which I’d been converted. One question asked me to clarify my relationship to Barbara, since she referred me, and another, why do you want to work here? If I were anybody else, I could not lie. (Whatever they put in the water, it included a truth serum.) “Barbara’s a neighbor of mine.” That wasn’t a lie, but it told only an element of truth. “I want to get to Eart Major.” That wasn’t a lie either. Everybody wanted that.
I also underwent a complete physical during which THEY analyzed my body fluids and circulatory system to make sure I’d ingested enough chemical blue water to be immobilized emotionally. I drank liters of the tasteless crap before the examination and then voided through every orifice afterwards. It took several days of fasting and consuming only those allegedly “pure” foods I’d stockpiled for the effects to wear off.
I was put on the night shift and the plan was that during a 45-minute break, I’d join Barbara at the empty front office. She had unlimited access to the building but, once inside, only to her work area. We decided to tackle finding “the list” first. We knew there was one because she had overheard her bosses discussing how outraged THEY were that an underling had made the list and was scheduled on an earlier flight to Eart Major than THEY were. And we thought if there were people we knew on the list, they could help us to get our names there.
As only part of the operation functioned at night, there were fewer supervisors on duty and THEY stuck close to THEIR operatives. Entry into the office was with fingerprint authorization through a biometric scanner. It was an antiquated system but less expensive than the more advanced alternatives. THEY assumed that we drones were frankly not capable of sabotaging THEIR methods, what with all the pre-screening and of course, the water. Even so, it wasn’t an easy scheme to fool. Fingerprints couldn’t be faked, guessed, misplaced or most importantly, forgotten.
And, of course, there was a security camera trained on the scanner which required a password to be keyed in conjunction with the fingerprint. The camera was less of a problem than the fingerprint, password and scanner so we began with the fingerprint. Barbara often worked with warm wax to create prototypes that her superiors handled to study. We took a clear print and coated it with silicon gel to get a textured impression that we could place over one of our own fingers.
Securing the password was a piece of ake for a woman of Barbara’s charms. And instead of disabling the camera, she distracted the security guard long enough to freeze its crude monitor image of the scanner when no one was around it.
Once in the office, we commandeered the mainframe. Barbara keyed her boss’s password that not only got us into the ship parts design and inventory systems (which Barbara had access to with her own credentials) but also into other components of the operation like budgeting, tabulations, provisioning and scheduling. We learned the next ship from our region was set to launch in a matter of weeks but had no clue as to who was chosen to be aboard. At this point, Barbara and I were we and everyone else was THEY.
We performed this same procedure on three non-consecutive nights and got nowhere. There were no paper files or trails to follow; THEY were too shrewd for that. And though we presumed there were others like us on the inside, we trusted no one enough to solicit their in- or output. Disheartened, we gave up our search for the list as a means of resolving our dilemma and focused on the ships themselves since between the two of us, we had entrée to every technical detail.
Meanwhile, our shared storehouse of unadulterated food was depleting. Water for industrial use wasn’t treated and I’d been draining the apartment building boilers for years. If caught, it would not be long before we’d be forced to swallow THEIR poison. Barbara had been cheating all along and it was showing in her behavior.
“I’m not so sure this isn’t a waste of time,” she said to me in a disturbingly lackadaisical timbre. “Even if they can’t take everybody, why would they not want us? We’re essential to the program.”
“We’re essential now,” I explained, “but think ahead, Barbara, when that last ship takes off with that last passenger. How essential are we then?”
“But THEY’ll need us in the new orld for their next journey.”
I was losing her again, could feel her slipping away. “There isn’t going to be another journey, Barbara. Without children, what would be the point?”
As the atmosphere and conditions grew more intolerable, THEY maintained THEIR cheerful attitude while people remained oblivious, grew even more self-assured and satisfied with the status quo. In place of her usual unctuous greeting whenever we crossed her path, our landlady began to sing to us, “It won’t be long now.” I wanted to grenade that perpetual smirk off her fat, ugly face.
With my ast experience in provisioning, and my excellent scores on THEIR math and geometry quizzes, I quickly advanced to a job in which I diagrammed the configurations of ship holds to contain whatever a particular rocket was built to carry without an inch of wasted storage space. It became my private plot to include an area for Barbara and me on a “perishables” ship slated for liftoff. It would carry foodstuffs and anything else that required a constant temperature, air and real water to survive the long trip.
Though we continued to have the occasional meal and agreeable sex together, Barbara and I saw less of each other during this time because I didn’t insinuate her into the latest intrigue. When the ship was completed and trucked off to its launching pad, she and I would disappear, along with a couple pressurized spacesuits. Beyond this strategy, my thinking was muddy. (I’d begun to eat the food Barbara bought, though we both continued to drink and wash only with the boiler water.)
I started itemizing all the other things we might need up there: a book or two would be nice when we grew bored with floating inter-galactically; music to lull us if the gravitational laws of physics made us ill; writing instruments and paper on which to journal our notable reflections (for whom and why I had no clue)…Until later, in more lucid moments, when the concept of cooperation dawned on me during shards of brainwaves, that the crew and passengers would not necessarily be riendly towards us, being stowaways and all. I suppose I never committed the word to emory because I didn’t see how it was possible. And with the current state of affairs, the urgency, you didn’t waste time or thought or ink on the impossible. So it faded, like other things began to fade. I no longer emembered my mother and father, if I had sisters or brothers. I lost the image of Pot (or Port) and didn’t ecall what it was that had the name (or other name).
Then the boiler water turned blue. I guessed that Mr. McCaskey was in on it after all.
# # #
Having lived in inspirational states with slogans like “Where America Goes to Die” and “Hook up for Free at One of Our Lovely Trailer Parks,” Chris Calcara currently writes from “Missouri: Loves Company!” To date, his short stories have been published by the Sandlapper Society, Ash & Bones and The Good Men Project. He’s authored full-length plays and novels, the latest of which tells the story of an impressionable Midwestern Catholic Italian choirboy who grows into a mob-worthy assassin in order to avenge two ‘70s high school nemeses ─ a bullying classmate and their abusive educator cleric ─ 30 years later. Squealer is a comedic YA/adult thriller seeking its antagonist (and a publisher).