This time, I went with the opening line suggested by my friend Stacy Wendt. The line she submitted was “It was Green’s last day, and she wasn’t sure what could come next.” I don’t think these stories generally have anything to do with the people who suggest the opening lines, but even so, this is a story about kindness as much as anything else — and Stacy’s a kind person. I didn’t plan it that way, but it’s probably not quite a coincidence, either.
This is my third attempt at the story; the first two were very different (and far less kind), and didn’t work at all. This one I quite like.
It was Green’s last day, and she wasn’t sure what could come next. She was enjoying her buzz; it made everything soft and easy, like it always did, but there was a bittersweet twinge this time. She wasn’t sure if that was in the mix, or if it was her own body chemistry adding that special flavor for her. Either way, she thought she quite liked that. It was something new.
They’d made the evening cold, but not unbearably so; she was wrapped up, snug and warm. She sat on the bench on the hill, looking at the frozen artificial pond below. She watched a few figures skating on the ice, lit up by the floodlights in the rafters. She could see their beams clearly in the thin clouds of haze that swirled inside the Sanctuary. Nobody moved very fast, nobody fell down. Most people were sitting down by the pond, cups of something hot in their hands. It was all very nice.
Green saw a figure walking up the hill towards her. She recognized the Caretaker by her slow and careful gait.
“Hello, Green. They say you’re leaving us tomorrow,” the Caretaker said when she reached Green.
She looked old, Green thought. She had no idea about her age, and it was impossible to tell. The face was middle-aged and plain, but that didn’t mean anything; the Caretaker was very rich. But today her posture seemed like an old woman’s, because of age, or because of the chems – no way to tell. Everybody got the same mix, but some people fine-tuned their buzz with personal meds. Green didn’t. Sometimes there were bad reactions, and anyway, she was quite content with the daily buzz. They had a different mix every day, to make sure you didn’t build up a resistance, but the effects were largely the same.
The Caretaker was waiting for an answer. Green blinked. “Yes,” she said. “I think it’s time.”
“It’s a little sudden, don’t you think?”
“Sudden? It’s been three years.”
“Were you going to tell me?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’d make any difference.” And you’re kind of creeping me out, she thought. “And you’re kind of creeping me out,” she said, and then regretted saying it. But not very much.
The Caretaker sighed, and sat down next to Green, her movements deliberate. She took Green’s hand in hers, palm up, and peeled off the glove. Green let her do it; why not? The cold air nipped at her exposed fingers.
The Caretaker stared at Green’s palm for a long time. Then she pulled her sleeve back, saw the scars. Her gaze made the thin, white lines itch, and Green felt a distant urge to make a fist, so she did. The Caretaker slowly raised her face, met Green’s eyes with some difficulty.
“It’s a harsh world out there,” the Caretaker said.
The Caretaker tried to pull the glove back on Green’s hand. After three clumsy tries, she gave up and placed the glove on Green’s lap. Green picked it up and pulled it on.
“You can always come back.”
“I know,” Green said. “But I don’t think I will.”
The Caretaker nodded sadly. “I don’t think you will, either. I think you’re going to die out there. It’ll be too much for you to handle, like before, and this time you won’t hesitate.”
People were blunt in the Sanctuary, the haze stripping people of certain inhibitions. It didn’t matter. Words were dulled here. It was therapeutic. Perhaps.
“I don’t think it’ll be like that.”
“I suppose you’ll find out one way or the other. It’s your funeral.”
Something like anger stirred in Green. “You’re a bit of a bitch, aren’t you?”
The Caretaker looked at Green, but didn’t respond.
“You need us here. We make you feel important. You’re the Caretaker; you like to be the provider. We’re the dolls in your dollhouse. Your toys.”
“People come here because they can’t make it outside. Anybody can leave whenever they want.”
“Almost nobody leaves. The haze makes people docile. They stop caring. You’ve created this world where everything is controlled. Everything is so…” She struggled for a word. “Safe. Nobody feels much of anything.”
“Nobody hurts here, Green.”
It was true. Green couldn’t argue with that. She was quiet for a long time. “I used to paint,” she finally said.
“You can paint here.”
“But I can’t. And I miss it.” She tried to find the words, but couldn’t. “I just miss it so much.”
The Caretaker looked at her, and after a while, she nodded slowly. She patted Green’s knee.
They sat for a while and watched the skaters together.
“We’re thinking of having a late spring next week,” the Caretaker said. “Very warm, a gentle breeze. Fresh grass.”
“That’ll be nice,” Green said. “I like that. Is it going to rain?”
“I think we might have a little rain, just for that smell you get afterwards.”
“Well,” the Caretaker said, “just try to come back if you need to.”
They embraced. The old woman felt thin and bony under her bulky clothes, but Green was surprised by how strong she was. When the Caretaker let go, she kissed Green once, a dry peck on her cheek, and Green thought about her mother for the first time in years, how weak she’d been at the end.
The Caretaker got to her feet, and started down the hill, towards the pond. But she turned around.
“Maybe you’re right about me.”
“It doesn’t make you a bad person,” Green said. “I know you’re trying to help.”
The Caretaker shrugged slowly, and walked away.
“I’ll be Anna again,” Green called after her, but she kept walking.
Green sat on the hill, and looked at the skaters. She thought about fresh air, and becoming somebody else, and trying things. She thought about failure. Somewhere inside her, fear stirred. And hope.
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