Another alpha. I’m on a bit of a flash fic/short story bent at the mo. Usual statement; it’s an alpha so its sorta at the sperm meets egg stage and yet to full develop. I know the tenses for example are all over the place and I’m fine with that. All constructive critisism and comments welcome.
I’ve sold my car. My house too. All my belongings in fact. I need the money.
The cashier at the desk looks at me in my simple clothes and worn old shoes. She hasn’t seen someone like me here before. Normally only rich whites and Asians.
“Are you sure?” She asks.
“Yes,” I tell her. I am.
“You’ll need to fill in this form,” she tells me with an ‘It’s Your Money’ look on her face, and hands me plastic cased electronic writing pad that probably has more complicated parts to it than my first home computer. I can’t get the pen to write on it properly so I have to fill in each part by using the damn stupid touch pad keyboard.
But its alright. I’ve been filling in forms all my life and using damn fool contraptions to do it. I can fill in some more. They’ll be the last ones after all.
It takes me half an hour and several trips back to the counter to ask her for clarifications, but I get it done. She plug the pad into her terminal and feeds it my details.
“Do you want me to set a reminder for you on your hub?”
“Don’t have one,” I tell her. I never wanted one of those things even though you can’t seem to get a cup of coffee without one these days. It all just kid’s stuff. It’s not real, just a tech-fairytale.
Like time travel? Am I just buying into a new bit of tech-fairytale?
“Alright, Mr Kante, your appointment will be at six thirty with Doctor Hill,” she tells me as she processes my payment. That’s fifteen hours from now.
“I’ll wait,” I tell her. I’ve waited so long already, what’s a bit more?
“You can’t wait here, sir.”
“This isn’t an all-night bus station.” She closes her window and leaves. After a few hours the staff start getting ready for home and I’m eventually escorted out by a janitor.
I get some coffee at the all night diner a few blocks away. A small meal. Some quiet.
This area used to be a steel works, but it hasn’t looked even vaguely industrial for almost twenty years. I got my first job in this country not a hundred yards from where I’m sitting now, working as a cleaner in one of the warehouses. Later I became a security guard and after that I got a few promotions. It was never a good life. It was just a life.
Now this place is all new money; yuppies moving in and turning old buildings into apartments and bars. They pay millions to make a place look all old and crappy when it already is. They call it faux, or something.
This neighbourhood used to be all black and poor whites with families back up the line. There used to be food wagons out the front of all the big warehouses, selling you a taco or a hot dog for a few bucks. Now these strange tech palaces, computer run doll houses and glass fronted hot shops rear up and block out the light. Glowrods hand off each buildings awnings, killing off any natural light that gets through.
And everywhere are people and their hubs. Handhelds, clips on’s, face mounted or beaded right into their ears. All the news, all the knowledge, all the TV and movies in the world plugged right into their brain.
I wait until morning, my coffee drunk and my food gone. That might well be the last thing I’ll eat or drink. Who knows?
I pick myself up and make my way back to the office. The cashier from last night opens the door for me.
“The Doctor will see you now.”
Doctor Hill makes me strip. She gives me a full body physical, stopping just shy of checking my prostate. Thank god, I didn’t care for it the first time. She pokes me with long tubes and sticks with dials and lights on them. They beep and whistle as the pass over my body. She swabs my cheek and puts it in a machine. The machine does some science and tells her that, apart from the obvious, I’m fine to travel.
As if I didn’t know that.
She sits down, letting me dress finally.
“We’ve just got to do one more test,” she says. Her wrist mounted hub blips at her, telling her something. I don’t care what.
She opens up her electronic pad and starts pressing the screen.
“Why do you want to travel back to the past?”
“I want to visit my old home.”
She raises an eyebrow.
“You are prohibited from contacting individuals in the past. You have signed a document to show that you understand this.”
“Yeah, I know.” I just want to walk in the fields near my village and feel the sun on my skin again. I want to sit and listen to the old man on his bench tell the kids another story.
“So this is a sightseeing tour?”
“The location you gave us bring this up as your place of birth? The date tells us that a ten year old you was still in the area. Are you aware of this?”
“I am. But I’m not going to talk to him. I just want to see my home town before I die.”
She gives me a look that’s half pity, half suspicion.
“You know…” she stops. She looks at me. “I shouldn’t let you go you know.”
“Cancer is, well, it is…”
“I know what cancer is, Doctor.”
“I shouldn’t let you go,” she says again.
“Am I clean other than the big lump in my chest?”
“Yes you are.”
“Then let me go.”
I’m old. I’m dying in fact. Cancer crept up on me about a year ago. I’ve seen the technological gorgons cancer has made of people. All our modern science and they still end up with a main of cables and pipes pumping blood and drugs in and out of them. No thank you.
Doctor Hill looks like she might be nice. Doctors a few decades ago just looked harassed. She at least looks like she gets a full night of sleep. Guess that’s what working for the private sector does for you.
“I’ll let you go,” she says finally.
“But I am limiting you. You’ll be pulled back after six hours.”
Can’t say fairer than that.
She walks me down the corridor to the Transportation Hall, passing us by glass fronted private rooms filled with healthy young men and women getting ready to go on their next big trip. Security is making sure they don’t have anything more offensive than a flash camera on them. One man seems to be having a hunting rifle taken off him. All I have are my wallet, my clothes and a small bottle of water. I have nothing to declare.
The Transportation Hall is red. Some sort of high power light that kills any nasties you have on you. It makes my skin prickle after a moment. All the technicians have on these big blue helmets and rubber gauntlets that look black under the light.
Doctor Hill helps me into the pod.
“I will see you in six hours,” she tells me. The last thing I see as the doors of the pod close is her face. Then I am alone in darkness.
I expected thunder or something to explode. But what I got was just a soft hum. Science doing its thing in a neat, quiet way. I don’t pretend to understand.
There was a light. A hum. I can feel my chest being tugged forward, as if there is a hook there pulling me towards something. The hard lump behind my ribs feels hot.
And then the light changes. It’s still light, but I can feel the damp heat I of the equator all around me. The light is the sun.
The sun. The sun feels so warm.
I’m standing in a high meadow. Long grass brushes my hands. I can smell, oh god, I can smell smoke and cooking fish on the wind.
Below the meadow is a huddle of buildings. They’re high sided and a mixture of corrugated iron and timber. The ground is stained almost black by the dripping well tap in the rough centre buildings.
I can see the barn where the crops are stored ready for collection. I see a few women moving around, their clothing bright, trailing small children. Other children run round the village chasing chickens as a tired old dog trots behind them.
Teya. I remember the dog’s name. A blunt faced mutt that loped after the generations of children, keeping watch and barking at us for indiscretions. When a wild dog had tried to savage a boy from our village Teya had driven it off and brought help to the boy.
Teya had died a year before I left the village. Seeing her follow the children around again brought a lump to my throat.
I start walking down the incline of the meadow. I can see some of the people look up at me. This field isn’t being used at the moment, it’s been left to recuperate from two years of planting. I’m surprised that I remember that. It will have been beans last year. Kidney beans. I remember having them for supper, salted and served with rice and fish from the river. I remember my mother filling up my bowl after my father died and saying, “I made too much again, it needs eating.”
My father would be up in one of the high meadows with the other men, hacking down the vegetation to expand and give us a fourth field to plant in.
My mother would be down there among those buildings, perhaps seeing to my baby brother, who I never contacted after I left. Maybe she would be helping the other women with making the cloth or washing or cleaning or cooking or wearing her fingers down to stubs just trying to survive and make sure her children had enough to eat.
I would be down there too.
I stop, letting the breeze tug at my clothing and cool the bead of sweat that trickles down my cheek.
I will be down there.
Maybe this is enough. Maybe I can just sit here in the meadow and look down on my village, watching it from a distance and reliving the memories as they play out in front of me.
The day the story man came to see us sticks out in my head. He was an old man, his hair gone white and he’d been clean and smelled good, like the white ladies you sometimes met in the markets down the valley. I remember him because he told me that one day I could be somebody, that I could be happy and have money in my pocket and a good house to live in and a wife and children that would go to school and become important people in the world.
The story man told me all the old stories about the spiders and the lions, the water folk and the animal stories. The stories that mattered, the stories that I never heard outside of the village. He said they were special and that I should remember them and tell them to my children.
I should just sit here and watch but I want some human contact. I want to see into the life I once had. I’ve been gone from it for so long that I don’t even remember half of it.
I make my way down the trail and step onto the hard packed ground. A bird, a small thing we used to call a yellow head, bobs and flits between the wooden walls of the buildings. The smell of cooking fish is stronger now, the hot pepper tang of groundnut filling my nose and making my eyes water briefly. I can smell onions and hear a woman singing, some song that I only half remember.
I walk through the village, stopping to let a small flock of children run across my path. They’re chasing a little boy in a brown shirt and shorts. The children are followed by Teya who gives me a critical stare before continuing her pursuit of the children.
I walk up to the well, my shoes squishing in the dark earth. The well tap drips. It always has, a slow three drip followed by a quick two drip. No one was ever able to stop it and so we all just forgot that it did. Little green shoots poke up around it, grasses of some sort of another.
I sit on the bench by the well tap and stretch my legs out. The walk down the hill has made me tired so I take out my water bottle.
No I don’t need that yet. I have time. The smell of cooking and the sound of the woman singing threaten to lull me to sleep. The sun, my god the sun, warms me. why did I ever leave this place?
“Who are you?”
I open my eyes and see the little boy in the brown shirt looking at me. He’s small for his age and the shirt is baggy, falling almost to his knees. No wonder, it is an inherited shirt from his father.
“My name is Henry,” I tell him.
“Mine too,” he says and sits next to me on the bench with the fearlessness of the young. “You’re not from round here. Why are you?”
“I used to live here,” I tell him. “I’ve wanted to come back for a long while.”
“Where did you go?”
“A long way away. Over the sea. Across the world.”
“Was it nice?”
“It wasn’t bad. Lots to see. But I felt that the time was right to come home.”
“I want to go across the sea one day,” he boy said.
“You will,” I tell him.
“No way. I’ll never leave here. I don’t even know anyone who has.”
“You’ll be the first.”
The boy laughs. “No one ever leaves here. No one ever does anything here.”
“You can do anything you want. You can be anyone you want,” I tell him. “I was like you once. I was in such a hurry to get out of here that I didn’t even know where I wanted to go or even really understand why I wanted to go.”
“Why did you go?”
“My mother wanted me to have more than she had. I got schooling. I studied hard. I got the chance to travel. It was good.”
“So why did you come back?”
“I missed it,” I told him, looking out at the hard yellow earth around the houses and the wet dampness under the well tap. The smell of food was making my mouth water and the sounds of crickets singing in the bushes and trees made me feel complete. Together they filled a hole that I didn’t know I had.
I knew that the boy only saw old warped buildings, hot tin and corrugated iron roofs, old people and go-nowhere-friends. I saw the words form on his lips and told him, “one day, you’ll change your mind.”
He stared at me in amazement, perhaps thinking I was some sort of wizard, able to read his mind. I couldn’t help but smile.
“Tell me about the people here,” I said, “it’s been so long that I don’t know any of them.”
The boy pointed out his friends first. They still ran and played without him, chasing another of their number. Sometimes they would come to the well tap to drink before running off again. The young boy Henry, however stayed with me, pointing out his mother and all her friends and, when the sun dipped a little lower in the sky and the men returned from clearing the meadows, he pointed out his father.
I was brought a bowl of rice, kidney beans and fish and asked to stay and eat. The village pulled out chairs or sat on the ground by the bench so that I wouldn’t have to eat alone. The mothers clucked at their children for showing bad table manners like eating with their fingers and not using the fancy cutlery in front of their guest.
Henry’s father looked at me like he knew me but couldn’t place me. So did Henry’s mother. Henry kept on asking me questions about the places I had been and asked what I had learned in school. I told him everything I remembered and, as the day wore into darkness I told them all the stories of my youth, stories they all knew by heart but loved again in the retelling. As the moon rose I stood up and bad them goodnight and went back to where I had arrived in the high meadow. The smoke from fires drifted over the village and lights winked from behind screens and shutters.
It had been a good six hours and I was ready now. I took out the plastic water bottle from my jacket and unscrewed the cap. I drank the whole thing down in one long pull.
I settled back on the grass and look up at the stars. They are clear and blue-white. They are clean and wholesome. The smell of the grass and the village wafts up to me in the meadow and, even as I feel the poison pulling me to sleep, I can still hear Henry’s voice as he waved goodbye to me, calling me the Storyman.