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A Home by Any Other Name
The second Aldo Sorrento stepped off the airplane and onto American soil, he went through his bags, making sure he hadn’t lost anything. One of the bags was filled entirely with a child-sized, incubator-like box. It was a stasis, designed to keep things in their exact state. Anything could be put in it, but it was usually used for organic life, like vegetables so they wouldn't spoil, or small kittens so they would stay cute forever, or even Aldo's daughter, Lina. Smuggling her into the plane was only semi-illegal, but Aldo didn't have the money to buy her a proper plane ticket. Anyway, children were too much trouble to travel with. They were always running around and making messes. The stasis would keep her frozen until he opened the box again, and she wouldn't have aged a single minute from the time Aldo put her in there to the time he took her out. Lina was born five years ago, even though physically, she was only three years old. He frequently used the stasis whenever he was too busy to deal with Lina. At least there was no need for a babysitter.
The only other bag Aldo carried with him had two changes of clothes each for himself and for Lina, but most importantly, a house key. The key was the only thing Aldo had to remind himself of his home. It had, saved in its tiny hard drive, an exact copy of the layout and furniture of his house back in his homeland. When the key was inserted into an unoccupied house, it would take on the look and feel of the home that Aldo had spent so much time renovating. This was how people lived, nowadays. The only old-fashioned buildings left were for stores and work. There weren’t any old houses anymore.
Knowing that he had everything with him, Aldo made his way to the airport's exit. He passed right by the Immigration Officer, an attractive young woman in uniform. There was no need for customs or immigration anymore, now that the world was united under one government. The woman was only there because of the unemployment problem. She was supposed to stand around looking like she was making sure everybody was where they belonged; she would get paid if the global economy was on the rise.
Aldo often wondered why there was a need for all nations to answer to one authority. There weren’t any real borders any longer. Even though people were free to roam between countries, they generally preferred to stick with family and relations. Aldo didn’t think that there was a unique culture in any corner of the world nowadays, but he knew that many people in his country could argue with that. It’s strange how those people cling to their last shred of originality, but they also cheerily wave the flag of the United World.
He left the airport. Immediately outside the doors was a pedestrian road, with other intersecting roads coming off it. On every street were houses—hundreds and hundreds of identical houses. They were all the same rectangular shape, with the same slanted roof, and the same off-white paint job. They were identical, except for the doorknobs. The doorknobs had two settings: glowing red or green. The colors signified whether there was a person or family in the house. Green meant vacant; red meant occupied. The airport was a hotspot, so Aldo had to walk at least two miles before he found a house with a green knob. Just for good measure, he walked until it began to get dark and he was far away from the airport. In this part of town, about half the knobs were green.
A man passed by Aldo, clearly on his way home from work. He headed for the closest vacant house, and started digging in his pockets for the key. He pulled out two of the clunky pieces of plastic and metal, and examined them both closely. One was his, the other was probably for his girlfriend’s house. He shoved one into the lock of the house and opened the door. The knob changed color to red. The key worked like one of the ancient flash drives Aldo had once seen in a museum. It remembered how the house was set up when the owner took out the key this morning, and when the key was inserted into a vacant house later on, it restored the settings of the house.
“Excuse me!” Aldo called out in the Universal Language. He had been watching the whole process. He didn’t want to appear foolish, just in case the housing situation was different in America. The man turned around and greeted him.
“Where would I find a listing for which houses are taken?” Aldo asked. The man looked at him, one eyebrow raised.
“The listing is right in front of you!” He motioned to all the houses. “As long as you have a key, you can use any house with a green doorknob.” Aldo thought about this for a minute.
“Do you mean that none of these houses have owners, or that the owners won’t mind that I live there?” In his homeland, even though a key worked for any house, people were very territorial, and often claimed the same house they had used previously. Some people believed it to be a spiritual necessity, while others just liked consistency. Whatever it was, it was clear from the look the man was giving Aldo that the same tradition did not apply here in America.
Aldo thanked the man and walked back into the street. He surveyed the houses, trying to tell himself that they were all exactly the same. He was in America now, so he should act like other Americans. He didn’t need to live in the same physical space every day; he didn’t need to set down roots or ties to this new land. He closed his eyes and tried to come to term with this. When he opened his eyes, he walked towards the nearest house with a green doorknob. With a sigh, he set down his bags and dug out the key. He shoved it into the lock and opened the door.
There was nothing. It was just one large room, with white walls and a white concrete floor. There must have been something wrong—this was the default setting for a house. This was the real, physical house, not the house his flash drive had saved. Aldo shut the door and tried to insert the key again. There was still nothing. He examined the key closely, checking it for scratches or defects. Finding nothing, he banged on the door of the house in frustration. This was his only tie to his real home, and it was broken. After squeezing out a tear, he got himself off the front porch of the house and looked around.
He didn’t know anyone here, and he kept this in mind as he walked back across the street, towards the house that the man he questioned disappeared into. Aldo knocked on the door, trying to look calm. When nobody answered, he knocked again, louder. The door opened with a grumble, and there was the man again, with lipstick smudged on his cheek and neck.
“What is it, foreigner?” the man asked, putting enough emphasis on the insult to stress the fact that Aldo was not welcome here. Aldo tried not to dwell on that, instead taking charge and showing the man his key.
“Just tell me where to take this,” he said, “and then I’ll be out of your hair.”
The man frowned, but pointed down the street. “Head that way.” Slam.
Aldo sighed, picked up his bags again, and began walking down the street.
The man working at the key shop was a real businessman. He knew how to sell a person on a deal, especially if it was expensive. Aldo had to wait half an hour before the man was finished squeezing out every penny of his last customer.
“What can I do you for?” the man asked in Universal. His voice was accented, like he hadn’t grown up speaking Universal. Which, Aldo realized, was ridiculous. Universal was required by law to be every child’s first language. Only with a special permit could a family speak another tongue at home.
Aldo fished out his key again and showed it to the man. The salesman whistled softly.
“I haven’t seen one of those antiques in years,” he said.
“It’s broken,” Aldo said simply. The man laughed, his eyes glinting with the greedy gleam of taking advantage of a gullible outsider.
“That’s because it’s ancient,” the man boomed with a grin. “It won’t work for any of the houses in this country. What you need is an upgrade.” He took Aldo by the shoulder and guided him to the back of the store, where the advantages of the most recent upgrades were displayed. Aldo tried to read about the differences, but wasn’t able to detect any before the man turned him around again. “I’m guessing you’re new here. Your key only worked in wherever it is you’re from because your country didn’t keep up with the updates.” Aldo groaned. Yet another reason why he should have moved to America sooner.
“How much will it cost for my key to work again?”
“10,000 GMUs.” Aldo’s jaw dropped. GMU stood for Global Monetary Unit. The world had made the currency transition when Aldo was a young boy, but he was sure that his country hadn’t gotten a fair exchange rate. He made, on average, 15,000 GMUs per year. After paying for taxes, food, and bills, he usually had about 3,000 GMUs for other supplies and emergencies. Aldo had saved up 5,000 GMUs to come to America, but most of it had been spent paying for his independence papers that were necessary for him to travel.
“Is there a cheaper option?” Aldo asked. The businessman ran his hand through his greasy hair, pretending to think.
“Well,” he said, drawing it out, “you could buy a starter house for 3,000 GMUs. See, a lot of the cost of upgrading your key is all about the things that are saved inside it. In the starter house, there wouldn’t be any furniture or décor, but there would be a lock and a roof.”
“Is there anything else? Any other choices?” Aldo had spent most of his life hoarding material objects, and he wasn’t happy to see them go just like that. The salesman shook his head, somehow failing to look mournful. Aldo sighed. “I only have 1,500. I’ll pay you half now and half when I get to a bank.”
“I’ll get out the contract.”
By the time they were finished, the salesman had managed to trick Aldo into an extremely high interest rate. Aldo would have to pay 5,000 GMUs in total to account for the time difference between payments. Aldo left the key shop with only 35 GMUs left in his pocket.
The streets were dark, with only the harsh red-lighted doorknobs to guide him back to an unoccupied house. It was eerie, walking alone, the red lights looking like eyes following his every step.
When he finally got to an area with a few scattered vacant houses, he realized that he recognized the neighborhood as close to where he was that morning. After another minute, he found the house of the helpful man. And across from it was the house Aldo tried to get into. It was still unoccupied. Aldo swiftly crossed the street and walked up the front steps. He inserted the key and cautiously opened the door.
There were large, empty rooms inside. Everything echoed, there was no furniture, and the floors were made of hardwood, but at least it was a place to crash. Aldo closed and locked the door, and set down his bags. He then promptly curled up on the wood and fell asleep.
The next morning, Aldo was feeling a little lonely, and more than a little homesick. He brought over the stasis, and unlocked it with a keypad. He lifted off the lid, and waited for Lina to wake up.
After the initial disorientation and stumbling around, she started to ask questions.
“Where are we, Daddy?” she asked in that sweet, little girl voice of her’s.
“America,” Aldo said simply. Lina looked around in amazement—for her, America was still a wondrous place. A place that she had only heard her father speak about with dignity. There wasn’t anything wondrous about a bare house. Her innocent awe turned into a small frown.
“Where’s Dahlia?” she asked.
“Your friends couldn’t come with us. It’s just you and me, on an adventure together.” She wrinkled her little nose.
“I don’t want to live in this house,” she whined. “It’s boring!”
“It won’t be like this for too long, sweetheart.”
“No! I want to go home! I want to see my friends!”
Aldo put her back in the stasis.
Later that day, after eating a disgusting pile of slop that Americans called a “hamburger,” Aldo found himself at the Unemployment Office. There were so many people there—it took him half an hour just to get to the front desk to ask for an application. He then spent an hour and a half trying to answer questions that were meant to determine your character and personality. As soon as he was finished, he hopped right back in line to turn it in. He waited for at least an hour, but as soon as it was his turn, the man at the front desk put up a sign that read “CLOSED FOR THE DAY—COME BACK TOMORROW.” Aldo couldn’t believe his luck.
The next day, Aldo didn’t waste any time getting to the Unemployment Office. He made sure that he was there before they opened, so that he was the first in line. As soon as the office opened, he turned in his forms. The man at the front desk flipped through the application, barely scanning each page. Aldo tried to hold his tongue as the man announced that there was a position as a security guard at the airport that he felt would suit Aldo’s personality type. Aldo could start the next day.
That’s how Aldo found himself back at the airport, the place where his bureaucratic journey started. He was making 10 GMUs a day, but, as the Orientation Officer had said, it was necessary to start at the bottom in order to feel the accomplishment of climbing your way to the top. At least Aldo could eat off of that, and could put a tiny bit of money away every day to save for his house.
But it wasn’t exactly the thrill of Aldo’s life. He stood, in uniform, for at least eight hours a day, sometimes more if there was actual trouble. The most action that he had seen was escorting an escaped mental patient off of the premises. Beyond that, the day to day life of a security guard was fairly boring. Aldo spent his days looking official. Sometimes he would talk to the pretty Immigrations Officer he had noticed on his first day in America. Sometimes he thought about Lina, and wondered if she was doing alright at home in the stasis, if she was dreaming. But what he found took up most of his time was watching the people entering America for the first time, each one looking more hopeful than the last.