Chapter 2

Chapter 2

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Flora knocked on the hatch of a booth, then quickly moved out of its way while clasping the little handle between the hatch and a keypad. She kept her eyes shut—her default mode when she wasn’t in her booth, which meant that there wasn’t a screen with customized Firmament videos, which in turn meant that there wasn’t anything worth looking at.

“Who is it?” a young woman called from inside the booth.

“It’s me, Flora.”

“Flora?” the woman said, delighted. “One second, one moment.”

“No need to clean your booth, just hurry, please.”

The woman didn’t seem to have heard. She didn’t open the hatch. And since Flora couldn’t conveniently shut her ears like she could shut her eyes, she heard how the woman moved things around in her booth—probably to make space for both herself and Flora.

Worse, Flora could hear the distant splashing of a fast-flowing river a mile below her. She shuddered. This smell—of a deep, dark cave, too natural—literally, caused by nature, not by humankind—implied that the many people in the many booths were completely unnatural additions. This smell was inhospitable; terrifying. Firmament had videos about nature; Flora had seen what nature could do to un-nature in revenge for what un-nature had done to nature. And who could blame nature?

Her hands were sweaty. She could taste unwelcome thrill in her mouth—all the disgusting, hormone-triggered stuff that her body produced to equip her for fight or flight.

But Flora was here for a reason and all she could do was freeze, for now, and wait. She clasped the booth handle more desperately with one hand. The other, she repeatedly clenched into a fist, then unclenched.

“Come on,” Flora said impatiently.

“Opening now,” the woman said from the booth.

The hatch opened.

“Oh, Flora, how happy I am that you’re here!”

Flora opened her eyes slightly and managed a smile.

This goodhearted young lady, Josephine, was Flora’s friend from several booths down. The people who lived between Flora and Josephine were perverted freaks who always eyed Flora’s legs and Josephine’s, too, even though she wore a long skirt or long pants at all times, so they didn’t really count as neighbors. So, really, Josephine was Flora’s closest neighbor.

Josephine’s genuinely touched reaction at Flora’s surprise visit triggered a tinge of remorse in Flora. She rarely visited Josephine’s booth; it was always Josephine visiting Flora.

The biggest reason, of course, was that Flora preferred cat videos above all human interactions that required two people to sit still in that six-person coffin and quite literally breathe in and out the air that the other party had just breathed out and in. And it wasn’t like there were cookies to offer, or tea or coffee. Those were too rare, meaning Flora would have to stand in line at one of the storage booths for hours, possibly days, to get them.

The pitkeepers only very slowly released the rationed one-time-use luxury goods (such as snacks). That made sense. No one knew how long the wretched leftover humans had to stay in the pit.

Also, there wasn’t much to talk about, other than what videos they’d recently watched. They couldn’t even talk about the weather. Weather would be exciting, but the pit had no weather. The pit was designed to block out weather. So if they were going to talk about videos anyway, why not just watch said videos?

But as mentioned earlier, Josephine was the opposite of Flora. This gal cared more about the softy-girly things, like decoration, hygiene, and the human touch. Nothing weird, of course. Goodness, no, not Flora’s friend. Flora didn’t want to imagine two people trying to get intimate in these tiny booths, and then worse, actually accomplishing it, though people did do that all the time, judging from the baby-cries and the subsequent quarrels among neighbors.

Anyway, the point was that Josephine liked having friends. Human friends. Face-to-face friends. Not the ones on the screen. In fact, Josephine liked friends so much, so that now, as Flora climbed into the booth, Josephine turned off the screen.

The booth fell silent.

Flora felt awfully self-conscious as Josephine gestured at the mat—she liked offering the guest the more comfortable seat—and as the hostess, sat on the hard, cold part of the brown metal floor. Unlike Flora’s mat, Josephine’s smelled of disinfectants. So, offering it to the guest made sense.

“Water?” said Josephine.

“Oh, sure, yes, thank you,” said Flora. She wanted to get to her point fast but Josephine enjoyed playing the hostess so dearly.

Thus, Flora patiently waited while Josephine produced the cleanest plastic cup out of all the beat-up, cracked ones that she kept at the corner where the left end of the mat met the wall. That corner was called the “kitchen.”

In the corner where the right end of the mat met the wall, Josephine kept the “bathroom” with all the toiletries and a shard of mirror. The one noticeable missing element was the toilet; those were only allowed in one of the larger common booths with the necessary sewer connections.

To the left of the screen was the “library” with a dim mini lamp, ballpoint pens, and a few paperbacks that were too large for the miniature desk that supported them.

To the right of the screen, in front of the ventilation duct, was the “closet” with all of Josephine’s clothes folded in a neat pile. There, Josephine also kept dozens of empty yellow and orange detergent bottles.

Despite the insane crampedness of the booth, it felt way more pleasant than Flora’s. This was because of the way Josephine’s booth smelled—or rather, because of the way it didn’t smell.

No sweat. No person-smell in general. No strong “nice” scents either. The hygienic odor of the disinfectants only came from Josephine’s mat so that it wasn’t overwhelming. And the prettifying scents from the used detergent bottles had long faded. (Josephine didn’t keep them for the fragrance; she washed them thoroughly and cut them up to make decorative trays: a candy tray for the kitchen, soap tray for the bathroom, and pen tray for the library, for example.)

The amount of effort that had gone into Josephine’s booth hurt Flora a little every time she visited. Perhaps that was the main reason she didn’t like visiting anyone. Every booth hurt, except her own, where there was nothing but the bare minimum: a screen and a mat.

Stoic simplicity had its advantages. No one who saw Flora’s booth would think that she would’ve wanted to fill it, had she had more resources. Flora just wasn’t the type. Not her personality. By choice, she kept her booth minimalistic to the maximum.

Choice, not depressing circumstances.

Nevertheless, Flora appreciated the areas of brightness that Josephine’s yellow and orange plastic trays added to the otherwise grim metal and faded backdrop of the booth. The human eye welcomed occasional diversions. That was just its nature. Humans weren’t meant to live in a tiny booth, so thirsty for diversions…

Flora gently shook her head to eliminate those bleak thoughts from her head. Useless thoughts, they were. Josephine’s booth was more than comfortable, if Flora could simply focus on the here and now instead of extrapolating on what could have been and what should have been.

Flora could also focus on how clean Josephine was. This cleanliness resulted from Josephine’s caring about proper clothes and grooming—almost like the way people used to. She liked washing her hair at least once a week. For this, she rationed her water. For Flora, hair-washing was an anniversary kind of special event; she liked her water in her body, not on it.

Josephine handed Flora the best plastic cup and poured water from a gallon container. Then Josephine poured water in a shabbier cup for this special occasion in which she’d allow a small deviation in her ration plan. Flora felt honored.

“Cheers,” said Josephine.

“Cheers,” said Flora.

And they cheered.

“Mmm,” said Flora, “good water.”

Really. Nothing dusty. Nearly transparent.

“Right? I got it from the 654th floor, column PPPPY.”

“What’s special about the 654th?”

“I really shouldn’t be taking advantage of this, but”—Josephine leaned in and Flora did the same to make her friend happy—“a dozen people died from food poisoning the other day, so the filter in the common booth there has less water to filter, meaning a cleaner filter, meaning better-tasting water.”

“Ah, I see. Well hustled.”

“Right?” Josephine grinned.

“Were they in pain?”

“Nobody knows. But nobody heard anything. You know, no screams, no cries for help of any kind. And within minutes of being discovered, the pitkeepers came to clean up the scene and remove the bodies. Some say that they wanted to be dead. Who knows? I visited each of their booths and dropped some old water”—which was the way to pay respects to the dead—“then got some new water before anybody else.”

That was the thing with Josephine. She was a nice young lady who dressed properly and washed properly, but she was no wuss who mourned the dead to the point of not getting good water for herself. The pit was too full anyway. With the babies that were being born, someone had to die.

Callous? But that was the reality.

Flora naturally favored escapism over the pain of dealing with practical matters, but this kind of practical matter—about space or lack thereof—could lead to unnecessary deaths, if ignored. Not just that, it affected everyone. So Flora didn’t ignore it.

But others were the other way around. Such people educated themselves with the videos about how they came to live in the pits—watching centuries-old news clips about not enough people dying, leading to overpopulation, pollution, yadayadayada—and then went off to have a million babies.

Maybe Flora’s awareness of the irony of human actions was why Josephine liked Flora as her friend. Flora was an unhygienic escapist addicted to cat videos, yes; but at least Josephine knew that Flora wasn’t irresponsible.

“Anyway, Josephine,” said Flora, “I was wondering if I could borrow your scissors. And some other things.”

Josephine’s face lit up. “Are you finally going to cut your hair?”

The only time Flora became consciously aware of her body (other than when her buttocks hurt from long-time sitting while watching the cat videos) was when Josephine said something like this. In both cases, Flora didn’t see a way of escape. Cat videos and Josephine were elements that Flora planned on keeping in her life for a long, long time.

Yet, grooming in the booth—what a depressing thought.

Unsure, Flora examined the ends of her long messy hair. It had once been curly; now it was so disheveled that its original nature was unclear.

“It’d look nice if you’d cut it,” Josephine said eagerly.

“Maybe that too,” Flora said, “but later.”

“If not for that, what were you going to use the scissors for?”

Well. Where to begin?

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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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.
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