Slow Progress

Dragging my fee a bit and saving stories for my UCLA course – but decided to revisit a funky sci-fi story that has vexed me. I posted a bit a while back and made a little progress and did some heavy editing. Hope to finish soon, but here it is in its rough glory!

***

“Good morning, Mollie. You have no appointments today. You have no reminders today. You have no tasks today. Have a wonderful day.”

Mollie opened her eyes to the electric blue of pre-dawn as it peeked around the edge of the curtains. Even at 28 years old her mornings still evoked wake-up calls from her stepmother, soggy oatmeal and crusty eyes, half-conscious showers and undead walks to the bus stop.

“Thank you, Lenny.”

As her father and stepmother relied more and more on comfortable automation, she rejected it in favor of analog pleasure. They bought Lenny when she was ten – a clumsy robotic device that defied all sci-fi tropes by being utterly useless. Any of his true abilities had long been neutered by Mollie’s insistence upon only using him for wake-up calls and occasional reminders. In him was a tentative hope for artificial intelligence that burned as a truer future rose from ask. Looking at him now, a tabletop relic posed eagerly for his next command, she already missed him.

All the familiar kitchen smells wafted into her bedroom. She took things slow, first wiggling her fingers and toes, then making snow angels in the cool sheets. She sat straight up then let herself tumble back into her pillows. She knew she would sleep in another bed from now on, probably a more comfortable one, the type that fit her body’s every subtle contour. But this was her childhood bed, her lumpy mattress and jersey pillowcases, her semi-public collection of stuffed bears. She opened her nightstand drawer and took out an ancient camera that used actual film – her grandmother’s camera. She took a photograph of her unmade bed before heading downstairs.

Her goodbye party was held the week before. Her high school friends bought a keg and made her play all the old games until she felt like a water balloon. She puked in a dark corner of the backyard and peed in her neighbors rose bush, earning thorn cuts and punctures on her thighs that felt numb in the fog of good drunk folly. The next morning she asked her stepmother Janie to make her favorite breakfast, then make it again the day she left.

“Are you scared?”

“No, not really.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s true, but it’s alright.”

Her stepmother was not a cold woman, but efficient in word and action. She cut to the core of any problem like a blunt object thrown with incredible force and in a stunned, painful moment you told the truth.

“I guess I am. Not of the trip, you know, because I know everything they do to make it safe, it’s insane. Kind of just feels like the first day of school, you know?”

“I remember a few of those. Your first day of middle school when you walked into a puddle and ruined your suede boots? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so ticked off – but I was probably angrier since they cost us a fortune.”

A stack of blueberry pancakes sat in the middle of the table. The coffee maker bubbled and hissed next to a sweating carton of creamer. Fresh daisies stood at attention in a milk glass vase.

“You bought the good stuff,” said Mollie when she saw a bottle of real maple syrup. She’d never seen the kitchen this clean. She’d never see it again. It was a comfortable hotel room that was transitory all the same.

“You didn’t think I was going to half-ass it, did you?” Janie looked down her nose at Mollie and poured their coffee.

They said nothing as they forked pancakes onto their plates and measured coffee and cream. The longer they sat, the more Mollie’s ears grew attuned to the birds outside the window and the slow whoosh of morning commuters on their street. All were sounds so rote as to disappear from consciousness, but Mollie knew that there would be a morning when their absence would be terrifying. She chewed her food like a cow, letting it touch every inch of her mouth and moving her jaw in tight ovals. Warm blueberries burst and slid down her throat and drawn butter coated her tongue.  Janie leaned across the table and kissed her on the forehead.

“I love you and I’ll miss you girlie. But you’ll be OK. I will too. I miss your dad every day, but I know he’s here with me. You won’t even be half as far away as he is!”

Janie loved God and country, but in the way that allowed her to treat those with opposing views like pleasant old relatives with lessons to teach. When her eyes moved to the skies, moon and heaven still shared the same space.

“I’m going out for a few hours, but I’ll be back for dinner. I hope that’s alright with you.”

“Are you going to see him?”

“Not sure yet, I gotta pick up a few things first.”

“Well, by the look of your suitcase, you’re gonna need a lot.”

Nearly everything Mollie needed for survival would be provided the first year – basic toiletries, a limited choice of clothing, food and drink. Anything beyond these items would need to fit into her Cosma-issued suitcase, which measured a slim 2×3 feet. For weeks she had anticipated its arrival, not thinking about what she would pack, but the act of packing itself. How her father taught her to roll her clothes tightly for maximum space, or how Janie had a wicker basket that held dozens of miniature shampoos and lotions from every hotel she ever visited. When the suitcase arrived she pulled it from the quicksand of Styrofoam popcorn, flung it on her bed and opened it with a triumphant, crisp click of metal latches. The outside was made of black carbon fiber that could survive a bomb, but the inside was lily white and cold and smooth.

She had not placed a single thing in it.

Mollie pulled a pink Caboodles organizer from under her bed – her go-to hiding place since she was in grade school. She stuffed a rubber banded wad of cash into her purse.

Her friends had given her goodbye cards full of cash and checks against her wishes, not knowing that she wouldn’t be able to bring currency aboard – an odd, obscure law of space flight that her boss Elmer Kaufman had unsuccessfully lobbied against. Five hundred sixty-five dollars waiting to be spent in ten hours.

She thought about going to the upscale shop at Somerset Mall, maybe get a makeover and pick up some of the expensive lipstick and eyeshadow that she coveted but never saved enough to buy. There was the mid-priced place on Oakwood, where she could pick up her favorite sweet-smelling lotion and a new hairbrush. In the end she parked at the closest drug store.

The store was bursting with Thanksgiving, all pumpkin flavors and turkey platters with a smattering of early Christmas. Everything was clean and everyone was sad. Household robots did little to relieve holiday stress, and their presence made people guilty. The news had just talked about some “giving” their machines holiday vacations, so they could feel magnanimous while rolling pie crusts from scratch and doing their own shopping.

Mollie declined automated offers to help her make a list or find the best product for the price. Instead of trying anything new or more expensive, she cleaned out rows of her favorite things – apricot face scrub, blue eyeliner, the lip gloss that tasted like mint chip ice cream. She turned over her chubby hands and thought some cuticle cream was in order.

There was always a checkout person to handle special or complicated customer requests, but that person was nowhere to be found. The self-checkout wasn’t going to ask her why she was buying these things or where she was going. It didn’t want to hear the story about how Marissa Lee had introduced the face scrub to her in 7th grade or how her dad had forbade her from wearing make-up until she was sixteen. It seemed like there were fewer and fewer people to tell anything. All but the biggest high school underachievers had moved away. Her dad was gone, Janie didn’t want to hear it.

On her way out she crossed a man walking in. He was out of place for the scrubbed incandescence of the store, with a farmer’s tan, sharp, prominent tattoos, and deep set blue eyes. He had a vague determination that was not meant for the store, but for a fix. The type that years ago she would have stealthily followed until she met up with him in an aisle and struck up an awkward conversation about whatever was on the shelf in front of them. Someone who would join her for an adventure, or have a hook-up, or would help her shoplift something silly like toilet paper or cheese puffs.

“Maybe we meet again on the moon,” she thought. “If they let me go, they’ll let anybody go.”

***

Her father had lived an unextraordinary life with extraordinary enthusiasm.  He held court at summer BBQs, where men would take turns next to the grill, seeking his consultation and support like a backyard Godfather. Mollie had inherited none of his ease.

His death was a catalyst to an unlikely series of events that led to her departure. He’d been contracted to work on the new headquarters of Cosma, a company that specialized in private space travel. Like companies before it, Cosma marketed space travel as a warm bath, a Swedish massage – days of floating through space, limbs like noodles.

Her father had seen the maquette of the building and laughed at its impracticality – an aluminum half-sphere atop sleek pillars. He liked to use the word “hubris” when talking about corporate titans and architects, and he believed that as a contractor he was the hero of a mad man’s dream.

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