My arm turns to stone as I reach for the door knob. What now? Am I having a seizure? Can’t it wait until I’m crashing face first onto my bed?
I cock my head around the boxes I’m still holding and hear a faint buzzing coming from the Prox-card scanner above my door-handle.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Everyone has one of those.
Except the inner warning bell still tinkles.
Ohhh, yeah, here it comes. I’ve overridden the card reader and the door knob is electrified.
Not everyone has one of those.
I tut at having to co-ordinate both the thinking and all the heavy lifting around here. Why can’t my brain and body look after me a bit better? They could do everything needed to keep themselves alive while I crouch in here and dwell on other things, couldn’t they? But noooooo. I’ve got to be on guard all the time so I don’t kill myself by accident.
And I ignore myself half the time.
My shoulders shrug in acceptance of the near death experience, ticking off a tired brain that is busily digging up the disarming procedure. It stops and complains that the body isn’t blocking the motion sensitive camera down the corridor. The body does so, mainly because propping itself against the door is a relief from standing.
Being at odds with myself makes it damn difficult to function. I demand a handshake between the duopoly, and return to my brain and body controls. Together we are agreed to achieve a common purpose.
Enter this room and sleep for days.
I settle the least bruised shoulder into the door’s midsection and lean into it. The high strength plastic flexes. A small click encourages me to reapply the pressure several more times until something clatters to the floor inside. My Prox Card reader wakes up with a beep and the latch retracts.
The door rebounds off the foot of the bed when I kick it open. Squeezing through the remaining gap into the corner of the room is so aggravatingly difficult I feel a scream rising in my throat. Once inside I kick it shut, bruising my heel. The deadly electric snake lying at my feet is defanged by scraping an elbow across the wall switch to turn off the current. I toe it to one side untrustingly.
The bottom of the lowest box is collapsing. I’ve crushed it almost in half to stop it slipping through my jelly arms. There’s nowhere more convenient to dump the heavy load than on the floor so, without ceremony, I release the lot. A rush of blood brings stinging relief to cold, white fingers. One of the bags clatters as it falls; the rest thud heavily like a dead body might.
I look over my two metre, by slightly less than three metre domain with a growing sense of familiarity. There isn’t much to know. My door won’t open all the way because apparently these corner apartments lost a bit of width due to some draftsman’s miscalculation.
I do a stock-take of the possessions forcibly rented to me by the State; paid for by involuntary payslip deduction or Assistance cheque garnishment. Currently I’m responsible for: one moulded plastic single bed, with attached double-door ‘multi-function utility locker’. One chair, huddling conspiratorially with its friend the battered table; and hiding beneath them is one small refrigerator.
The floor is carpeted with plastic and foil food wrappers; an accumulation that has spread amorphously across every available surface. I’ll probably get around to disposing of it all on the bi-monthly inspection day.
My unmade bed’s grotty sheets are a siren call to a lover’s closing eyes. They snap open again when a scratchy voice grates my eardrums.
“S’at you Sammy? You got my stuff then? Treat it gently, boy.”
Who else would it be, you stupid, old bag.
“Yes, Ma. No, Ma. I’m tired. Leave me alone.”
I do not want to talk to that insane woman. She’s whispering loudly enough that the resident on her other side can probably hear her too. They’d all watched me bring this gear in here. All they need now is a reason to come get it.
The smells in my room are of unwashed bodies and old, stale farts. It’s not bad enough to deter a thirst and hunger forgotten during the day’s anxiety. Taking a single step I pull the chair back to reveal the fridge. Water dribbles out when I open it. Someone has failed to position the jug under the condensate tube properly this morning. I drink the remaining luke-warm mouthful from the container before jamming it back inside and slamming the otherwise empty fridge shut.
The locker next to me has food in it. I wrench at the door which sticks. Suddenly freed, a cascade of ex-military high-energy rations spill out. They are years out of date but the foil is intact, and eating these contents is less hazardous to your health than not eating at all. Each packet is stamped with a promising recommendation.
“Create your own flavoured meals by choosing from the variety of sachets inside. Snacks! Mains! Desserts!”
Maybe I could have created something passably tasty if the flavour sachets hadn’t been pilfered by an enterprising distributer. There are more lucrative markets for that type of delicacy than giving them to us poor people.
Each protein bar; even minus the syrups; contains enough energy to maintain one fit soldier for one day. Instead of following the packet directions, I stuff three of them in my mouth and chew, swilling the mess down with the ration pack’s bag of distilled water.
As I tilt my head up to drink, a small green light catches my eye. It glows on a disintegrating cardboard cylinder attached to its moulded space in the cabinet’s door. This is the disposable version of a combination phone, CCTV monitor, and interactive 3D enabled TV display.
A message waits patiently to be accepted.
My brow crinkles. I decide to put off anything that might upset me further until after I take care of my hunger. The protein bars absorbs the water in my stomach and expand to three times their original size. The full feeling is comforting and my stress levels drop to the lowest they’ve been all day.
There might be time to catch the last few minutes of “Head Or Balls!” It’s a quiz show where contestants are punished by the audience for wrong answers with heavy objects, dropped from increasing heights. I always press the ‘Balls’ button.
I shove another tasteless bar between my lips, sucking on it like a cigar. Careful not to tear the rolled up plastic screen when I pull it down I clip on a couple of spent bullet casings to prevent the sheet curling up again.
The laser projector flickers into life and throws a gray, blue ball into the middle of the room. The logo “A Better World” rotates once, then blinks and dies. This area has crappy download speed so the laser is redirected onto the 2D screen.
The hyper-violent game-show is almost over. I leave it playing and clutch my very full stomach. It is cramping uncomfortably, lower down this time.
Uh-oh, I really have to go.
I shed my new, dirty coat fast and fling it into a far corner, an arm’s length away. It covers the hag’s strange baggage like a shroud. The handful of pamphlets in an overalls pocket is removed, and then I strip the clothing off to muted howls and gasps when weeping abrasions are scraped afresh.
The locker floor is piled with crumpled, spare clothes. I dig them out to let the fold-down toilet lower into place. With the overall bunched around my feet like leg irons I shuffle backwards, letting nature take its course even as my butt hits the flimsy toilet seat.
There’s no time to read the pamphlets. I suffer through an experience best described as atomic and then use them as make-shift toilet paper, both a necessity and a statement. Slightly awed by the severity of my body functions, I refold the toilet into its housing. A filthy, plastic sink automatically takes it place and I pat the flexible material down into a bowl shape. The sink fills with light-brown water until it reaches the minimum mark at which point I slam it into its housing to flush the toilet. Supposedly this arrangement encourages a person to wash their hands. An intricacy I avoid.
With a full stomach and empty bowels I am less resistant to receiving the waiting message. Perhaps I’ve won the lotto. Pretending casualness, I flick the ‘accept message’ button and tap the touch screen’s slider, accidentally taking it to full volume.
Where it jams.
“MR... SAMUEL FERNANDO ZUCKER. DISMISSED FROM... THREE B DASH ONE, POSITION 11098722 FOR... MISCONDUCT. YOUR BENEFITS ARE WITHDRAWN FOR A PERIOD OF... THREE WEeks. You are re-graded as... Four C dash Zero...”
I’ve gouged a hole in the 2D screen, madly rubbing at the volume control. The use of my surname brings with it the echo of a cruel, unimaginative school-yard chant. The expletive rhyming with Zucker being the most obvious of choices.
My mother can be counted on to make matters worse.
“Oh, Lordy. What ya done now? Ya been Dash Zero’ed!”
“Well, t’was a stupid job anyway; cleaning, cleaning robots. Fucking stupid.”
“... Took me a lot of favours ta git ya that job. Ya only had ta do one more day... Owww owwww oww.”
She was taking my sacking rather badly. I’m in no mood to console her.
“I bin knocked off me bike, smacked up the head with a stack of paper, I can’t ‘member nothing till the last second, and... I’m probably wanted for murder. So whatever rip-off ya had planned, you’ll just hafta make up anovver one. WITHOUT ME IN IT!”
I’m pretty sure mother isn’t used to being talked to like this. She’s quiet for a second and I can almost hear her mind ticking.
“You don’t have a bike...?”
She says it slowly, after all she is talking to an idiot. I put my face in my hands, listening to her breathing quicken. It isn’t a long wait.
“But I’ll tell ya something, sonny! Since the second ya tore me open when I birthed ya, ya bin nothin’ but trouble. If ya fadder hadn’t got kilt he’d a thrashed ya inta shape. But no! I get left in da shit as usual. Left at the mercy of that brother of is. I had it all worked out. I was getting us outa ere. We be right in the shit now.”
All I can think is, ‘What’s new?'