Chapter 6

Chapter 6

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That afternoon, Flora’s booth underwent a kind of silence that it had never undergone since she’d first moved in.

That’d been after she’d turned six. One day, out of the blue, two pitkeepers had visited her mother’s booth. (There was no such thing as a family booth. The original engineers of the pit couldn’t possibly have foreseen how many families were to consist of three people, or four, or five, making the allocation of bigger booths highly inconvenient. So, Flora had grown up staying at her mom’s sometimes, and sometimes at her dad’s. That day, she happened to be at her mom’s.)

The pitkeepers wore uniforms. Brown, the color of moles, top and bottom; a belt with walkie-talkies; heavy black boots; and hard black helmets fastened around the face with a strap and buckles under the chin.

Back then, Little Flora had guessed that the helmets were meant to protect the pitkeepers, should they fall through the chasm. Now she knew that no helmet could save a human from such a fall. The river torrents would tear them away to god knows where, with only one thing certain: that it was going to be somewhere highly toxic.

So, the helmets were no good if someone did fall. The helmets’ main purpose was to protect the pitkeepers from angry residents who wanted more water, food, and space, or less noise, bad smell, and fewer newborns who were bound to take over their booths one day.

Anyway, that day, the two pitkeepers had stood on the walkway just outside Mom’s booth and declared that Flora was old enough to have her own booth.

“598-PPPPW,” the middle-aged one who smelled of cigars said without the slightest hint of a smile or frown. “Two floors up, three columns to the left. Close enough to both your parents.”

This was neither meant to be taken positively nor negatively. Just a simple fact.

“The basics are already there, Flora,” said the other one. “T-shirt, pajamas, jeans, some water, toothbrush, toothpaste, things like that. And I’m Viktor, by the way.”

This one smiled awkwardly and reached into the booth to shake hands. So Flora shook his hand. He was younger than the first one by a decade. Thirty at most. Flora and her mother might have been his first official contact with a resident. (By the way, the first one didn’t say his name or offer his hand.)

Little Flora gazed at her mother. They’d been watching Mom’s favorite—gardening documentaries—and Mom had been distracted by an important piece of information that her favorite gardener from a hundred years ago was detailing, regarding good soil and bad soil. So Mom hadn’t really been listening to the pitkeepers. She still sat on the floor, not offering the pitkeepers a seat or getting up or shaking Viktor’s hand.

“Mom?” Flora said.

Only then, with considerable difficulty, Mom faced those intruders, at which the screen immediately showed the moving thumbnails of three other documentary options to choose from while the current one kept playing. But Mom carelessly waved her hand at the screen and Firmament paused the current video for her.

“Does she have to leave now?” Mom asked, still sitting.

“Preferably,” said the cigar one.

“Go on,” Mom said. “Follow them.”

“Do you have any belongings you’d like to take with you?” said Viktor, the awkwardly smiling one.

He looked around Mom’s booth.

Mom had cut out pictures from detergent bottles—the sticker parts that showed pastel lavender petals or pink rose petals—and decorated the lowest part of the walls, as one would with a baseboard. The smell of lavender and rose, unfortunately, couldn’t be forced to stay the way stickers could be. (More than once had Flora wondered later in life if her mother had named her Flora because she’d hoped Flora would smell like flowers. But of course, Flora didn’t.)

So, without the detergent smell, Mom’s booth smelled the way all other booths with owners like her smelled: neutral with a hint of disinfectants. “Owners like her,” as in owners who’d made significant efforts to make their booths smell nice.

Two mats lay side by side, leaving little space to sit in front of the screen. A regular-sized one for Mom, a child-sized one for Little Flora.

Though Flora already knew the answer to Viktor’s question—she had no belongings other than the mat—she looked around the booth with him to signal that she was considering his question thoroughly.

Then, she answered, “Just the mat.”

He winced as if Flora’s near lack of belongings hurt him a little. Or perhaps, it hurt him that he’d never have a child of his own. Pitkeepers weren’t allowed to have children.

“Well,” he said, “now you’ll have space to fill with all the things you like.”

Then he glanced at Mom with a hint of a frown.

The cigar guy cleared his throat, his face still neutral. Mom had turned away from the three of them some time ago. The video had resumed.

Little Flora knew of only one thing that compelled Mom to move: the voice of the authoritative grandmother, The Firmament Lady, who demanded that Mom stretch, otherwise Firmament was going to show the gardening documentaries no more.

“Bye, Mom.”

“Bye, Flora,” Mom said to the screen.

Mom didn’t watch as Viktor resumed smiling awkwardly while he helped Flora out of the hatch. Flora didn’t look back.

The pitkeepers accompanied Little Flora to 598-PPPPW. They left. Flora sat down. The screen turned on. Firmament began showing random videos. Even modern art ones. Soon, it realized that Flora loved nothing more than cats.

Ever since then, the booth hadn’t known this level of silence, of the afternoon when the orange tabby kitten had arrived. Not even when the cats on the screen had been relatively quiet, as cats were prone to be, because, the thing is, Flora had never actually turned off the screen completely while she was in the booth.

But now Flora had turned it off. Completely. She didn’t want to hear the slightest, high-pitched, sustained beep that electrical devices generated, or the sound of chips running to make calculations about what to recommend next. Neither did she want the stretching reminder from the Firmament Lady. And she also didn’t want the air to heat up artificially. Not the tiniest bit. And she didn’t want to wake him with blue-light, or light of whatever color.

Because, just listen.

The sound of a baby animal breathing in and out. One that had, only hours ago, insisted on trying to keep his grime-covered eyes open because he couldn’t let his guard down. One that now curled up on Flora’s stinking mat and slept like he’d already given her complete and unconditional trust.

In the darkness, she lay on her mat next to him. The towel that she’d used to dry the kitty hung over the screen. It was still wet. Only the tiniest bit of light entered her booth through the gap in the hatch, so she couldn’t see him clearly with her eyes, but he was there. Breathing. The very presence of the kitty was light itself—not the kind that entered through the eyes, but glowed in her heart.

At some point, she fell asleep. She’d never so completely and utterly slept and only slept, without dreaming, without fearing.

© 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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