Table of Contents
Jump to Chapter 1
What finally woke Flora was distant drumming combined with gentle pressure—first, on her nose, then on her entire face. Something furry tickled her cheeks as it kept hitting her nose left and right with something soft. A soft cotton bat, maybe.
Flora didn’t own bats, let alone a soft cotton bat. So, what on earth was going on…?
She scrambled up, recalling that she had company. The orange kitten hissed and jumped from her face. Instantly, Flora froze.
The distant drumming didn’t sound so distant anymore; someone was knocking on the booth. Her booth. Her hatch. That overshadowed all other sounds.
The knocking bode no good. Her only visitor was Josephine and Josephine knew better than to knock so persistently and loudly. And Josephine would have said something, instead of just knocking.
Flora scooped up the kitten. His heart beat against hers and he didn’t move as if he knew she had reason to squeeze him so close.
What if someone had heard the hiss?
Was it morning? Night? The inside of the booth was still pitch-black with the screen off. The light entering through the edges of the hatch hadn’t changed the slightest from what it had looked like before Flora had fallen asleep. You couldn’t tell time using the few walkway lightbulbs and the distant pale sunlight entering from several hundred stories above this floor.
“Flora?” said a man just outside the hatch.
That official-sounding voice—so confident because its owner had the right to visit any and all booths in the pit—and the volume of the knocking meant that this, now, was the time when most residents operated.
This was daytime.
Then, amazingly, it must mean that Flora had slept from afternoon to morning, at the very least. Maybe even from afternoon to afternoon. You simply didn’t feel this refreshed from a short nap.
Flora snatched the towel from the screen. It had dried completely. Her guess was right; she’d slept for almost a full day.
She held the dry towel and the cat in one hand and touched the screen with the other. Firmament took only a second to attack her with brightness and show her the next awesome cat video. And it was good that the cats in those videos tended to be quiet, so that turning on the screen made little difference in the noise level of her booth. Flora hoped that the visitor didn’t notice that she’d just started playing the videos.
Why? She didn’t know. Turning off the screen wasn’t illegal.
But she knew that an unexpected visitor bode ill. And those who bode ill tended to ask pesky questions, such as Why did you turn off your cat videos? Is it because you have a real cat hidden in your booth? Like the one you’ve got pressed against your chest there?
While the cats from a century ago groomed each other on the screen, Flora wrapped the kitty in the dry towel. For the first time, she wished that she owned more so that she could hide the kitten and the towel under a heap of stuff. But she didn’t, and she couldn’t conjure up stuff. All she had, other than this towel, was the stinky mat.
“Flora? Are you in there?” said the man outside, still knocking.
He didn’t plan on giving up anytime soon.
Flora ensured that the kitten’s head stuck out of the towel so he could breathe. The kitten didn’t complain; in fact, he seemed to like the security of the swaddle. Flora placed him by the wall, close to the corner.
Then she grabbed the mat. She dragged it to the wall and made it stand—which worked poorly because the mat was so thin, but it sort of managed to slump-stand like a kid who’d just been told No ice cream for you today, and it served its function of hiding the kitten.
Flora looked around her booth for one last check.
Okay. Screen on. Mat to the side. T-shirt as dirty as always. No pants, no skirt, just her underwear.
What were they gonna do, suddenly tell her that she should dress properly, when their biggest problem, excluding food problems, was people fighting over clothes? No, of course not. They probably wished that everyone cared as little about proper clothing as Flora.
Flora opened the hatch. She frowned and kept glancing at the screen, signaling with plenty of exaggeration that this was the most inopportune moment to be disturbed, for she’d been watching something a hundred times more interesting than you, the intruder—who were actually two intruders; two people dressed in the mole-brown uniforms of pitkeepers.
One man, one woman.
The man looked forty or fifty, Flora couldn’t tell. Firm build. Fit. He’d probably never needed Firmament’s reminder to stretch; in fact, he’d actually exercised. Lifted weights, maybe. Jogged along the walkways if he was really brave, maybe. He was the type of man with whom a person like Flora couldn’t possibly brawl.
The woman looked strangely young and old at the same time, perhaps because of her thick makeup, but no older than forty. That was what thick makeup did to you, for better or for worse—shielded you from age in a way-too-conspicuous way, thereby drawing more attention to your age. At any rate, the woman’s makeup was the thickest, most thorough one that Flora had ever seen anyone in the pit bother to wear.
“What?” Flora said, to both pitkeepers.
“Long time no see, Flora,” said the male pitkeeper with the stern expression.
Flora squinted. Then she recognized him, as his lips fidgeted into something resembling a smile—as awkward as fourteen years ago.
“Viktor?” said Flora.
“That’s me,” he said.
Now, that was an awkward thing to say. But well, Flora did feel awkward, the way one felt when one knew a person but didn’t, because that person had changed too much during their time apart.
Viktor’s expression had changed completely. Too stern. Like that other pitkeeper who’d accompanied him when they’d brought her to this booth at the age of six. That change in his expression, together with his rigid posture and his contrast to the younger, female pitkeeper (who smiled awkwardly, probably a newbie), was what made Viktor look older, not the actual number of years that he’d racked up.
Is he still fond of me? Is he still friendly? Is he still hurt a little because I don’t own much stuff, or because he isn’t allowed to have a baby? Such were the questions floating in Flora’s head.
Then Flora noticed the newbie female pitkeeper’s smile falter. That newbie glanced from Viktor to Flora’s face to Viktor to Flora’s pant-less, skirt-less lower body to Viktor. Each time the newbie’s eyes traveled from Flora back to Viktor, the newbie smiled less and less, as if reading something into his reaction toward Flora.
Then Flora noticed additional details about the newbie’s makeup: the color choice—deep wine, dark brown, and black around the eyes, then fire-red on the lips. This indicated that the woman had wanted to look older and sexier.
Possibly, for Viktor.
“You have grown,” Viktor finally said.
“I am twenty now,” said Flora.
The newbie pitkeeper seemed mildly alarmed, either because Flora wasn’t a minor or because Viktor had known her since childhood. Or both.
Flora found it comical but suppressed a grin, because it was too sad at the same time; it wasn’t like the pitkeepers could become true couples. Sex, maybe; but never a couple that planned a future together. There was a huge difference between being allowed to have children and choosing not to have them, versus children not being an option. There were horror stories about what happened to pitkeepers who broke the rules. Poisoned food, slipped in their next meal, some said. Pushing off the walkway, others said.
Starvation, by keeping the hatch locked.
Burning them alive.
Tickling them to the point of madness.
There were many ways to torture and kill those who were supposed to impose rules, then had failed to follow said rules themselves.
Viktor didn’t notice a thing about the thoughts that crossed the minds of the two women in the room; if he had noticed, he didn’t let it show.
He simply nodded at Flora. “It’s good to see you.”
“May we come in?”
“What’s this about?”
“We’ve gotten noise complaints from your neighbors, followed by reports about ventilation issues, so we came to look into the matter. I’m sure it’s nothing that we can’t straighten out through a quick survey of your booth and some conversation. May we come in?”
Flora made the conscious decision not to glance back at the mat, behind which hid the kitten swaddled in the towel. She kept her eyes firmly on Viktor.
“Sure, why not.”
She stepped aside. They entered.
“I’m sorry I have nothing to offer,” Flora said. “I don’t usually keep water in my room. Or anything much really, as you might remember.”
“I do remember,” said Viktor, without any hint of nostalgia or melancholy.
The newbie grimaced. In this case, it might have been because they all crouched due to the low ceiling and because of the usual mat stink. Flora picked a spot where she could block the view to the dark, triangular hole created by the wall, the floor, and the mat, and stood there. She didn’t offer them a seat on the floor; hopefully, they felt uncomfortable and left soon.
“Why is the mat leaned against the wall?” asked Viktor.
“Because I’d rather get rid of that thing, it takes up so much space and it stinks, but I need to keep it for sleeping. So when I’m not using it, I make it as inconspicuous as possible.”
Viktor and his newbie coworker surveyed the booth: Viktor, truly disinterested in Flora’s bare legs; the newbie, occasionally glancing at Flora and blushing. Flora wanted to tell her: Viktor isn’t interested in me! But there was no point in embarrassing a pitkeeper.
“What happened there?” Viktor pointed at the part of the ventilation duct patched up with the plastic bottle and duct tape.
“That’s probably what caused the ventilation problem,” said Flora.
“Yes, I can see that. But what happened?”
“It just broke.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“The cuts are very clean. It looks like someone cut it intentionally,” said the newbie pitkeeper plainly. But when she noticed Flora’s alarmed glance, she turned red and said, “I mean, it could be. Looks like it.”
Clearly, the newbie pitkeeper didn’t hate Flora for being a potential rival. For now, at least. The newbie just seemed ashamed of herself, for thinking thoughts that she couldn’t control.
“Was the ventilation duct cut?” asked Viktor.
“Yes,” said Flora. No use denying that now. “I thought something was stuck inside, but couldn’t see just what. So I made the crack bigger.”
This part happened to be sort of the truth, so Flora recovered her calm.
“The ventilation duct broke and you made the crack bigger,” stated Viktor.
“Yes,” said Flora. “Stupid me.”
“And why the duct tape?”
“Well, I couldn’t find anything that was stuck in there, so I tried to fix the mess I made.”
“And you didn’t report this, why?”
Flora shrugged. “Too much to do.”
She glanced at the screen. Several adult cats had huddled around a pan of milk and licked so furiously that the milk drenched the gray carpet around the pan. Served them right, those owners. Most adult cats were lactose-intolerant and shouldn’t have been given milk.
“You should have reported it,” Viktor said. “That was reckless of you.”
“Obviously, no one was harmed,” said Flora.
“People complained. They thought they were suffocating.”
“Which means that no one was harmed enough to make complaining impossible. And the sewer smell went away. This is what my booth normally smells like. I mean, it’s been almost a day and everyone’s fine, right?”
Viktor and the newbie pitkeeper stared at Flora.
“It’s been an hour since the first report came in,” Viktor said. “The report stated that the complaint was made as soon as they heard something like an explosion from your booth.”
Now, Flora stared at them.
“But…” She didn’t finish the sentence.
That’s impossible, had been what she’d wanted to say.
The towel couldn’t have dried that fast. And she’d slept like a baby. Really, really deeply, she’d slept. Never better in her life.
Yet… One hour, between the semitrailer videos and right now? The kitty rescue, the bathing, the sleeping, the towel drying, all in a one-hour period?
But something told Flora that certain things were better left unsaid. Viktor frowned.
“Who did you get the bottle and duct tape from?” he asked.
To say, or to not say the name?
“Josephine,” said Flora. To not say the name would have been suspicious.
Viktor nodded. “Josephine has lots of stuff.”
“So after you fixed the duct, the smell went away?”
“It did in my room.”
“Ellie, could you go upstairs and check if the duct there has any gaps and needs fixing?”
Ellie, the newbie pitkeeper, stopped smiling awkwardly. As her face fell and her features relaxed—or more like, gave up the pretense—Flora could tell that Ellie was definitely not forty yet. Maybe thirty-five. Or thirty.
Flora didn’t leave her booth often, so she didn’t see many pitkeepers, but her general impression of pitkeepers—male and female—was that they didn’t over-invest their time on physical appearances. Healthy, moderately fit, yes. But their aim wasn’t to appear beautiful.
But Viktor and Ellie were two of the more beautiful pitkeepers that Flora had seen. This, despite Viktor’s sternness and Ellie’s unsuitable makeup. They… seemed to care more than necessary. Ellie about Viktor and Viktor… about what?
Whatever his motivation, it could be why someone like Ellie, so much younger than Viktor, had fallen for him. Few things in life were more depressing than people who’d given up; and strangely, age didn’t matter. There were seventy-year-olds who thought it was time to die, but just as many twenty-year-olds who thought that they’d exhausted all options in life and acted as if from now until the grave, all they had left was—well, nothing.
Viktor wasn’t one of those young but dead souls.
“Sure, I’ll check upstairs,” Ellie said finally. “Flora.”
Ellie politely nodded toward Flora—and did Ellie just frown, in a Please don’t do anything with Viktor way?
Flora minutely nodded back, attempting to convey the message: Sex is my last concern, in general and especially now. Don’t you worry.
Then Ellie stepped outside. It was unclear whether she’d received Flora’s unspoken message or not.
“Anything else I can help you with?” Flora asked Viktor.
Viktor held up his hand, his eyes focused on an empty spot on the metal floor next to Flora. Thus staying completely still, he waited until Ellie’s footsteps became inaudible. Then he waited until Flora imagined that, by now, Ellie must have climbed the ladder to the upper floor. Then, again, he waited until they heard a hatch open—and the conversation between the porn guy and Ellie faintly echoed in the pit.
During that time, Flora considered the many reasons that could have compelled Viktor to kick Ellie out of the room.
Did he want a bribe from Flora? What kind? In food? In sex? Surely not in clothes. What should Flora say, or do? If she screamed here, could anyone outside hear? Could the porn guy upstairs hear? Would he help her? Would anyone bother to pay attention to the events outside of their booths, for once?
Abruptly, Viktor turned to Flora. She flinched back.
“Where is the cat?” he asked.
© 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.