Speculative Fiction: Beauty in Wasteland


I quickly adjust my hair, frayed at the edges, fiery red at the tips, and carefully pull it into a pony tail before I tuck it back into my mask.  I glance at myself into the mirror as I secure my head gear as tightly as I could.  Through a hard plastic green faceplate my eyes stare back at me.  The crystalline oval faceplate that I had painted a slight aqua hue was fraying at the edges.  I hear my sudden inhale rush through the breathing tube that extends past where my chin should be.

I wanted a new gasmask.  It hadn’t turned orange yet.  This was the color that warns of imminent mask failure.  I was tired of this opaque one that I had sported for at least a few months now, although I suppose I had a few more months to go.  I wander out to the streets maybe in search for one.  Maybe.

I continued down the boulevard, noting the asymmetric roads that seemed to give in to the asymmetric buildings.  The properties did not populate the blocks in predictable ways, at least not in Zone 2.  Zone 1 still resembled the city back in the heyday.  Now Zone 3 was the forbidden zone that all of the kids liked to frequent or pretend they did.  My friend julia, with a lower case j, tells me that she had gone into Zone 3 to have her hair done.  She came back with a head of shockingly red, but gorgeous, hair.  Of course, her hair has fallen out completely since the trip, which was to be expected when you expose your hair to the toxic wasteland the Municipality labels Zone 3.  She says while she’s growing her hair back, she wants to see if she can get a toxic tattoo.  I am skeptical that is even possible.  That crazy julia.

I grow thirsty as I continue along the next avenue.  It’s an uphill climb.  Up ahead, Cafe^2, “the coffee shop that does not kid around,” catches my eye.  I also get a whiff of the roasted coffee smells, a science that is a highly guarded secret since because just about everything is filtered through the gasmask.  Then I remember I was supposed to meet Roberto for some Chai today at this spot, just as we had agreed to a week ago.  Roberto was the perpetual foreign exchange student even though he had spent most of his life in the Municipality.  He always missed his motherland and reverted to his Mother Tongue when he grew melancholy.  Roberto greeted me at the door, warmly, with his gloved hand ready around my shoulder. 

“Ah Marla, you finally come out with me,” he says to me, hugging me, though the layers of physical protection we are both sporting makes this act purely a gesture, “I’ve been always asking you out and now you finally agree.  This will be a great day.”

“Well, I do feel badly about never having any time to really get to know you.  We’re constantly seeing each other in the halls of the Station, always passing by, but never really stopping and getting really introduced.”  I really did want to get to meet this Roberto, who was always seemed so kind, in passing.  Inwards, I think, julia is going to freak when she hears this.

Roberto places his dark, gloved hand on my gloved hand.  I struggle to feel something, something fanciful, or a slight sense of elation, but I couldn’t help but notice the heavy layers of environmental protection between us.  “What would you say if I told you that, that, I am attracted to you?”

I am surprised, confused, in disbelief, and I struggle a response.  He continues, however, “Would you marry me?”

“What?” my reply seemed entirely inadequate.  I feel almost frightened by this sudden proposition that appeared from nowhere.  As much as I have fantasized about eloping, marriage, and sudden eloping marriages to Mr. Perfect that drops out of the sky, I had no intention of living the life of my dreams.  What would I dream of, then?

I pull my hand away and he mirrors a retreat seeming to notice my discomfort.  The table, discolored in an amalgam of orange and green, remembered where our hands had met by an amorphous dark green blot.  I notice that the edges of the table were slowly disintegrating, rotting in the open air. 

“This question was completely as friends, you know, of course,” he smiled at me.

“Of course,” I smiled back, relieved.

“Do you remember the time when everything in the world did not decompose before our eyes?” Roberto attempted to divert my reverie, “I remember when I was a child, I used to accompany my Father to the sea in just a small dinghy.  It was a funny time, you know?  Even then, the toxicity of the seas were eating away at our small boat.  We were always bailing out the seawater, always sinking, and I was too young to to know not to touch the water.  But my Father, he kept going in, insisting that we would catch this fish just as he has for the past decade.”

“You swam?  In the sea?”  I was afraid to have placed too much emphasis on swimming.  I did not want Roberto to get any ideas.

“I was too young to realize then how dangerous that was,” Roberto seemed suddenly saddened, less forthcoming, and he reluctantly added, “I have these deep, deep scars on my arms, on my legs, on my chest.  It was a difficult time and I have never been able to forgive my Father.”

“He couldn’t have known it either.”

“Yes,” Roberto paused, and more emotion tinged his voice, “People always say to me, ‘Oh your father was a great man.’  I have never seen this great man they speak of.”

We left the cafe when the sky had dimmed to gray.  Neither of us could remember the time when the world did not wither away before our eyes.

“Are you doing okay?  Are you cold?”  Roberto asked gallantly, “You know, you only need to ask.  I would do anything for you.”

What an antiquated, no, strange thing to ask when we were both wrapped in the most durable and protective bubble known to man.  These fashionable hazard suits of youth could withstand bullets, fire, storms, and several metric tonnes of crushing weight, but one flaw remained: the human element.  Anyone could release themselves into the wild world where all sorts of dangers lurked, prowling for these naive sorts, ready to pounce them to death.  I’ve heard this anecdote uttered, rewind, and replayed on my mother’s lips.  I then notice that his haz suit was a little too old and a little big.

Just north of the Station is the tattered remains of a single-man footbridge, with the occasional hand rail, named Bessie, just a few feet above the waters.  It rests on giant pillars, corroding blue and yellow at edges where the sea silently lapped away.  This bridge serves as the primary link from Zone 2 to Zone 3.  Aboard Bessie, I notice three silhouettes teetering along the bridge from the window of the Station.  Bessie seemed hardly suitable for a single crossing, and seemed she may at any moment succumb to the chemical bath slowly eating away at her support beams.

I join them, moving across Bessie, taking note of the letters ‘ORION’ brazenly etched across a rail.  A small gathering formed around julia.  At first glance, we stood uniformed, donning black hazard suits, differing only in faceplate designs, like civic soldiers encircling a thing of inexplicable wonder, a goddess herself.  And we stood in awe, worshipping her in her ravishing naked beauty.  She seemed more agile, more true, more human than any of us, all the while cloaked the necessary heavy suit of armor. 

Noticing that I had joined her little tribal gathering, she came to me, wide eyed and cheery, like a freshly opened package of potpourri. 

“Marla! I’ve been waiting for you!  I want to show you something.” She had a head of short curls, brown doe eyes, a warm sweet smile, like a cherub.

Almost as if I had just been entranced, I suddenly realized that she had removed her gasmask and was slowly extricat
ing herself from her hazard suit.  I yell out and move to stop her.

She stops me with a look.  She gestures at the other members of our private gathering, which had grown in numbers since I had arrived.  One by one, each of them were following suit, emerging as newborn men, women, teenagers, and children. 

“Oh, god, why?” I moan and take a step back.

But julia, she grabbed my gloved hand, and, in a surreal moment played in slow motion, pulled off my gasmask.  In a panic, I utter a shriek, but then stop myself to hold my breath, reaching, grabbing wildly for my mask.  She laughed at me and tossed the mask behind her, into the sea.  Tears are foaming at my eyes, the air burned my face, and my heart was jumping out of my chest.  My face throbbed and burned, until julia reached out and held my face with her naked, human hands.  All the world seemed to stop. All that was true and real in the world was here and now with her hands cradling my face.

“Breathe,” she commanded me, fiercely, looking like a glowing figure through my blurry eyes.

I could not fight my instinct, my force of habit, that I had learned since before I could even remember.  All I could do was cry, shudder, shake my head, and suffocate in my own carbon dioxide.

“Breathe!” She yelled, “You were born to breath on your own.”

Suddenly her lips were on mine, forcing a rush of air into my lungs.  I felt her lips for only a second.  My mind had elapsed into a state of shock from the mixture of odious gases.  I was gasping, reeling backwards, clutching at my burning, thumping chest.  But in a moment of realization, I was reminded by her words.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe!  I could finally see clearly again and I saw julia smiling at me now like the sun through the mist.  Fractal shaped scars were growing on her cheeks, crawling over her neck, extending and circling her temples.  I watched her atrophy with a mixture of fear and morbid curiosity.  I look down and notice curious patterns etching into my palms.  Those who were among the first to join our experiment were convulsing in vivid patterns on the ground. 

“I love you, Marla,” she told me as she joined the mass of human art.

This was the last memory I had of julia.

She was dead, at least, that was the simplest way of putting it.  She was always with me, always lingering in the recesses of my mind, serendipitously reminding me of a memory I longed to forget.  Every time I thought of her, incredible sadness gripped me.

I woke this morning in the Medic Center.  I woke doubting if she ever really existed or whether I had imagined her completely. 

“Good morning, Miss Marla,” the Medic spoke in a soft alto, “We are all very surprised that you were even able to wake up again.”

I gazed at the medic through the large window that separated us.  I was stuffed into one of those large medical tubes suspended in some sort of medical gel.  The proper terms just weren’t popping into my groggy brain.  All I could do was stare back at her, silently, through the prison of the gel.

“We are putting you under observation, Marla,” she said looking over some of her notes, appearing rather busy, “You have to understand that you’ll be in the tubes indefinitely until we are clear about your involvement in the murder of fifty citizens in Zone 3.”

I struggled in the gel that only seemed to tire me out the more I moved.  I felt myself nodding off.

“Marla? Marla. Marla!”

I saw Roberto through the prism of the gel and his facemask.  Roberto placed his hand on the wall separating us and shook his head.  “I am calling off the marriage.  I need time to think, you know, about us and the future.  I’m just not sure what’s going to happen, you know?”

I was irked every time he inserted ‘you know’ into his speech.  I wished more than anything to speak and dispel the surreal circus that seemed to corner me at every turn.  As much as I felt Roberto was insane, I also wanted him to help me.  In my mind I was banging on the window, begging for release, but in utter frustration, I only watched him walking away and felt myself losing in to drowsiness.

I can not be sure how much time had passed.  I was not entirely convinced that I was at the Medic Center anymore, seeing that I had only seen one Medic thus far.  Maybe they had placed me at the Station for my supposed crimes.  Then I saw my mother.  She was crying.  It seemed as if my memories of my mother were only punctuated by brief moments when she was smiling and happy.

“Marla,” she said between tears, “What have you done?  Why did you do it?  You break my heart.  You know we believe in you.”

Then release me!  Do something!  I was screaming in my mind.  All were words, words, words but never action.  If I hear any more words, I would kill myself.  I was threatening, in vain, in my thoughts, with words!  I struggled again, but maybe it had been a while since I had used my body, and I ached all over.  Endorphins rushed to my brain and I relaxed.

Mother had deserted me just as all the others had.  Now when I woke, no one greeted me.  Sitting, no, floating in thin film, I was illuminated in a dim blue light like some curious museum spectacle.  My mind grew bolder, time passed, and I realized that the small lapses of wakefulness began to turn into small lapses of drowsiness.  Really there was no reason to sleep at all because I was never truly tired.  The world must have forgotten my existence, which curiously came as a welcome thought.  Perhaps this forgetfulness could turn into carelessness and then my release.

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