Chapter 12

Chapter 12

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Under the sunlight and surrounded by the glistening river water, the detergent bottles looked more orange and yellow than Flora had ever realized in Josephine’s booth, which had been lit by a single mini lamp whenever Josephine’s screen had been turned off.

“What are those?” asked Viktor.

“Josephine’s message,” said Flora.

She ran toward the river and jumped in so she could fish out as many bottles as she could. Viktor glanced at the kitty, who slept soundly and soundlessly in his hard, by now dry helmet, then followed Flora.

Together, they waded and swam and caught detergent bottles, then tossed them on the river banks. The water had warmed up since they’d last been in it, so that the hunt felt like a fun game—almost like one of those pool playtimes that Flora had watched on Firmament, minus the tubes, watchful parents, and proper swimsuits.

But they didn’t need swimsuits. Flora had always been fine with her T-shirt, underwear, and bare feet; Viktor seemed to much prefer this swimming session over the previous one, now that he’d left behind his heavy boots and wet T-shirt on the meadow next to the helmet with the kitty. Who cared if his ugly mole-brown pitkeeper pants got a little drenched?

Whatever the point of the bottles was, even Viktor found their sudden appearance amusing. He chuckled. Flora laughed too. A warm breeze carried the smell of dry grass toward them. Water splashed in this and that direction. The kitty awoke at some point and meowed, but not in alarm; he just seemed to want them to keep it down so he could continue napping in peace.

Flora and Viktor were scoring pretty well, given that they hadn’t had any prior notice about the bottle-catching game. They caught about half the bottles. The rest flowed downstream, forever out of reach.

The image of a bunch of bright yellow and orange bottles floating in the wide ocean moved, shamed, and intrigued Flora all at the same time.

Moved, because Josephine wasn’t one to waste resources. She collected things but never without purpose. She cherished all her belongings filling her booth—her kitchen, her bathroom, her library, her closet. These bottles had been stored in Josephine’s booth to become future plastic trays that held precious candies, soaps, and pens. But for Flora, Josephine had invested a significant portion of her collection.

Josephine had trusted Flora to recognize the bottles. And Josephine believed, or wanted to believe, that Flora was still alive and able to see the bottles. What a warm, hopeful person Josephine was!

But the bottles also made Flora feel ashamed. All these objects were meant for her, and she was only catching half of them.

The other half, gone to waste. Half, to restlessly float around the ocean forever. Half, to pollute what wasn’t Flora’s—what was everyone’s, or rather, no one’s.

But lastly, and most strongly, the detergent bottles intrigued Flora. This last part was what made her heart hammer.

She’d seen the ocean only as video footage on Firmament. It had been one of those contents that she’d liked to skip. Such contents hurt her, like so many other things in the pit. Landscape that she’d never see in person; scenery that she’d never experience firsthand; the lack, the shortage, the trap she’d been born into—all were things that she didn’t want to think about.

But now, suddenly, more than ever, reaching the ocean was possible: indirectly, through her touch on the detergent bottles that had slipped past her; directly, if she’d just keep on floating downstream with the bottles.

Flora. In person. At the ocean.

Her heart beat as wildly as the mysterious pulse that made volcanoes explode.

Flora, alone? Or with the kitty? With lots of kitties? And their Mommies and Daddies? A whole herd of them? Did cats like the ocean? Some cats did swim. Didn’t some cats live on islands and such? Yes, there had been at least one island full of cats that Flora had seen on Firmament. There used to be many such islands, each full of a different kind of animal: pigs, ponies, seals.

The combination of these thoughts left an odd taste in Flora’s mouth. Something bitter, something sour, something sweet…

“I think that’s it,” Viktor said.

Flora looked around. Indeed. No more detergent bottles were in sight.

They climbed out of the river. Quickly, each picked up a detergent bottle from the meadow and opened it, then the next, then another. In each bottle, there was a folded piece of paper, for a total of fifteen.

Most were dry; some were moist; very few were soaked. Josephine had achieved her goal: the bright colors of the detergent bottles had attracted Flora and Viktor’s attention and at least some of the messages had gotten through.

Flora unfolded one of the paper pieces. In slightly smudged black ballpoint pen ink, Josephine had written:

Hope you’re ok Flora

!RUN!

Flora read the message out loud, then asked Viktor, “What does yours say?”

“ ‘They are coming for you.’ ”

Viktor stared at Josephine’s message for a while. Flora stared at Viktor. Only the water dripping from their clothes moved. Then, simultaneously, they stared at the cliff.

Was it just Flora’s imagination, or were there people shouting in the pit? Was that really an echo of people voices? People who were coming for them?

“She wouldn’t have warned us,” Flora said, “if whoever is coming meant any good.”

At the sound of louder shouts, Viktor whipped around and faced Flora. He wanted her confirmation. She nodded. They weren’t imagining the sounds. People, whoever they were, were coming from the pit.

The chuckling, childlike Viktor from the bottle-catching playtime was gone. With equally sudden vigilance, Flora ran toward the helmet with the kitty and picked it up.

“The forest?” she asked.

“The forest,” he said.

He picked up his jacket, socks, and T-shirt, which had barely dried in the sunlight. Forcefully, he pushed his bare feet into the boots.

“You really should get yourself shoes,” he said, nodding toward Flora’s bare feet.

“Yeah, well, I’ll keep that in mind if I ever come across shoes again,” she said.

Then they ran, away from the pit, away from the river, toward the forest.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.


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