Outward Bound

January 20, 2008
By Alex Barker, Bainbridge Island, WA

Jennifer Hartman decided to sell her apartment in the spring. The cracked mirror in her bathroom made her look old and boring, even though Jennifer was only 30 and had been told by many old boy friends, as well as her late husband, that she was attractive.
The apartment was a decidedly dreary place, the only habited room in the entire complex. It was just her and Ms. Smulling, who lived on the 3rd Floor along with her seven cats.

Jennifer rarely saw Kathleen these days, now that the groceries were auto-delivered and the outside so polluted taking walks wasn’t really worth it anymore. Much easier to travel up to the glass walled observatory on the top floor and use one of the exercise machines.

But that day, Jennifer decided she would pay a visit to Kathleen, her only neighbor. Jennifer opened the door and stepped out, not bothering to lock it. There was nobody who would bother to steal anything anymore. The halls were musty, and the cheap red carpeting worn down. The room with the elevator had a large floor to ceiling window, which was grimy and streaked with dried soot. The window had no blinds anymore, so the harsh, unshielded sun poured in and heated up Jennifer’s left cheek rather unpleasantly as she waited for the elevator to arrive.

The elevator, too, was long out of its prime. “Please state where you wish to go” it said, and when Jennifer said “3rd Floor,” the voice recognition didn’t understand. It took several tries, each time speaking directly into the mouth piece, for it to comprehend.

Kathleen’s apartment looked far more “lived in” than Jennifer’s. Kathleen had lived in this room long before the Great Exodus, and the furnishings were better. It smelt of cats, and their fur, both long and short, littered the floor. Kathleen’s kitchen had the same set of cheap plastic tiles that Jennifer’s kitchen had, the ones that sucked up the smell of burning food like thirsty children, then radiated it back out for years afterward.

There were a couple of stacked plates on the drying rack here, and the sink was half full of brown soapy water. An old sponge floated in it, a tiny ship in a tiny sea.

Kathleen Smulling herself was sitting in the corner on a ragged recliner, her eyes closed on a well worn face and her hands tucked by her waist into a blanket that covered her legs. One of her cats was sitting on Kathleen’s lap, and for a moment she looked so content that Jennifer considered leaving and not bothering the old woman.

But Kathleen opened her eyes and smiled at Jennifer, who was still standing in the doorway.
“Come in!” she croaked. “Ms. Hartman, isn’t it? Why, I haven’t seen you in what, years?”

“Yeah, yeah a few months!” said Jennifer with the kind of fake apologetic smile people use when they don’t really want to be there, lips tucked up into the farthest reaches of her cheeks and somewhat squinty eyes. “Yeah well anyway, I’m moving away!” Jennifer cast her eyes around and looked at the slowly emerging felines. They curled about her legs like fuzzy mud, and she had to wade through them in order to reach Kathleen.

Kathleen was sitting up and nodding. “That’s a good thing.” She said. “You young people need to be out and about, not shut up with nothing left to do. There’s nothing left in this city. Where are you planning to go?”

“Well, I don’t really know actually… there aren’t many shuttles leaving these days; and a lot of the jobs aren’t around any more. Not many people around any more, to be truthful.”
Kathleen gazed up from her chair at Jennifer. “When’s the last time you went outside, hon?”

“I don’t really know, maybe a few weeks ago? I don’t really like outside now, it’s so dark and dreary.” The cats were moving away now, disinterested in whatever Jennifer had to offer. Gratefully, she sat down and waited for Kathleen’s response, who was stroking her chin and thinking.

“I go outside nearly every day, except when my cough comes back up. It’s not so bad now, poor old Earth is healing herself up again.”
Jennifer nodded, but not in agreement. In sympathy she listened, sure that Mrs. Smulling was nothing but an old coot and it was best for her to be off.

Everyone knew what the outside was like; all you had to do was listen to the few remaining news stations out nowadays. Global warming, they said, was now so far out of control that it would not be completely unthinkable to wake up one morning and find oneself floating in water. Acid rain, apparently, was busily destroying the ecosystem with a vengeance. The rainforests, of course, were all but ruined, victim of imported diseases arrived via tankers from other continents, and the resulting high levels of carbon dioxide were quite likely to choke us all up!

Everyone was definitely better off moving off world on one of the liners helpfully provided by “the following sponsors.”
But something about Kathleen’s words sparked a bit of rebellion in Jennifer’s mind.
The news had been saying the same thing about global warming for over 80 years, kicked off by that propaganda piece by some long dead politician, and carried on ever since.
As for acid rain, there were still plenty of animals left that she knew about. Nature adapts quickly, and most animals, save for the unlucky breeds of salmon as well as a few types of chimps, were doing alright. As for the rainforests… Jennifer was still breathing, so she wasn’t worried about that yet.

“Well, I suppose you’re right, Ms. Smulling.” Said Jennifer, and sat up. “But all the same, it’s best that I be off soon.” She was telling the truth. Although in no particular hurry, Jennifer had the same inclination that every traveler venturing into the unknown has, to stop waiting and just… go!

“Yes,” said Kathleen. “I understand. I think I’ll stay here for the rest of my years… it’s quiet here, and I seem so tired these days… I quite like it. Yes, I think I’ll stay here.” Something in Kathleen’s eyes shifted off of Jennifer, staring at something behind her. Jennifer shifted to see what she was staring at, but it was just the wall. She sensed that Kathleen was lapsing off into a state of semi-unconsciousness.

Jennifer moved away to the door and opened it up, taking one last look at the old grey woman seated on her chair.
“Good bye, Kathy.” She said. “See you later!” but she knew she never would. Kathleen sat there unthinkingly, and nodded somewhat. Her lips moved to something Jennifer couldn’t hear, and then she left.

The door to the apartment complex creaked hesitantly, as if it was uncertain whether the hinges would stand up to this new, unexpected presence. The three short steps down to the sidewalk were flanked on either side by a pair of fountains, both dry.

Jennifer strode down the steps with a somewhat giddy gate, carrying only a small suitcase full of necessary articles of clothing, and a small carry-on pouch containing toiletries and such.
The sun, she noticed, was coming out. Rays of golden light shone down on her, and a small breeze, like a breath, hit her gently. The street was abandoned; there weren’t even any parked cars on the curb. Some windows were blocked up, and small shops had permanently pulled down the iron grille over their fronts. A wooden fence that protected someone’s small yard was lined with faded posters from over the years, advertising anything from concerts, to the newest must have electronic gadget.

Jennifer noticed one from fairly recently. “HURRY!” proclaimed the poster in its bold, abrasive font. “7 SHUTTLES LEFT- WE’RE NOT COMING BACK THIS TIME! ONE LEAVING EVERY SUNDAY AT CITY CENTER SHUTTLEPORT.” It finished off with: “Don’t be left behind!”
That phrase made it absolutely clear to Jennifer. She wondered who had bothered to put it here in this abandoned district, but it wasn’t her problem. Jennifer checked the date: it was from about 5 weeks ago. There were two more chances for her to get off… then what? Jennifer was naturally an introvert, but the thought of being left from this new frontier made her shudder. She made a last, cursory glance over her apartment, and then turned her back on it for good. She was sure she would land a spot on one of those last two shuttles.

Since there weren’t any cars on the road, Jennifer did a slow, nonchalant skip down the middle of the worn, once busy street. It wasn’t that far from here to City Center.

And behind her, the sun continued to come out.

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