by Star Spider
We are stacked like building blocks, Nuzero says, so high we are bound to collapse. Nuzero is the oldest man I have ever known and he remembers things none of us do. Today the sun is too bright. I see the concrete blister and imagine it is my skin. Years ago we took the tunnels to work, below the disused streets, silent we would flow like water. Now there is no need for tunnels. I polarize the nano particulate glass against the sun, but I can still feel the heat through the thin shield. Yesterday it was a tsunami and the day before, a hurricane. It almost doesn’t matter now, our stacks of building blocks are impervious. Still I wonder how long we can last, alone on our island on the sea.
We are adrift.
I can hear the sounds of my neighbours and their devices, their low voices machinating over great distances. I can hear them but I can’t see them. Nuzero is the only person I have seen in months. When he passes on his slow sweep through the halls I watch him on the hallway view screen and hold my breath lest I say a word on the intercom to draw his attention. We are not supposed to draw attention. We have learned to be silent and still. We have learned to never know the things of flesh and touch, of sex and warmth. Nuzero has forgotten his lessons though and he alone wanders the halls, waiting for someone to call his name on the intercom. I think he can see through walls and doors. Sometimes he will stand and stare at my door for long hours while I stare back at his image on the view screen.
I haven’t heard from my parents in half a year and today I finally receive the message; they are gone. They were some of the last of a dying breed of breeders. A flood three months ago swept them out to sea. Mother said she loved Father, but Father never claimed the same. When I was young I asked what it meant to love a person. Mother said it was just a feeling. She couldn’t define it but I believed I saw it in the angle of her bent back as she placed Father’s slippers at his feet, in the careful arrangement of food on his plate. At school I asked my classmate Mukari if she loved me. She said she didn’t know and I didn’t feel anything so we agreed; loving was for parents, not for us. I made that agreement with many people as I grew. Akami, Kamiko, Yumi. If loving came in the shape of a bent back and the arrangement of food on a plate, I didn’t want it. I am not a parent. I will never be a parent. There are no parents any more, not even mine who have been washed away by the tides that inundate our shores.
Nuzero was a parent.
He would tell me of his children and his wife when we met in the halls, when we still used the tunnels. He would smile at his memories while I wished I could reach out to touch the lines on his face. It had been so long since I had seen a smile. We no longer smile, tucked away in our building blocks, because there is no one to smile at. Or maybe there is nothing to smile for. My apartment is small but I wish it was smaller, so small it would press in on me and I could feel the touch of the walls, the bodies of my neighbours through the reinforced, ceramic-enamelled structures of our containment.
When I get up for the afternoon work-break I bring my molecular gastronomically perfected protein cube to the view screen and watch the hall. I sit on the table, because I like the feeling of sitting somewhere I am not supposed to. I think about my parents and try to conjure a memory that will remind me of how I loved them. But the love died with them because love is for parents. I eat extra slowly. The protein cube is tasteless but I don’t mind the texture, it reminds me of Mother’s tofu. She made it herself, grew the beans on her balcony garden before the sun got too hot and burned all the living things. Father liked Mother’s tofu best. Perhaps it was another shape her love for him took, white and square. I watch the blank hall, stark and bland like tofu. It’s been so long since I left, since I’ve seen a person face to face. I see Nuzero every day, his face is clear on the view screen, every wrinkle, every line. But still it is only an image of flesh, I will not open my door to greet the real thing. Who would open a door now, even for themselves?
I hold a bite of the tofu protein cube in my mouth. The taste of nothing meets the feeling of something. I am chained to the curve of Nuzero’s shoulders, so like the precise angle of Mother’s bent back. A universal shape of love? His hand rises, like the tide, and he touches the metal of my door, a simple gesture that sticks in my throat with the synthesized protein. I have seen that gesture before, twice. Once when we separated from the mainland. Hoards of us went down to the shore to watch as our island floated away. A child on the mainland raised his hand and held it flat, palm out. I raised mine too and a sense of loss that I couldn’t define filled me. The next time I saw the gesture was when I moved away from my parent’s apartment. I got a job and I wanted to be closer to work, further from home. Space is what I needed. Mother raised her hand too and that feeling filled me then, as it does now. The unknown torrent of something I don’t want to understand. Understanding takes effort, Nuzero says, feeling takes effort. We have learned that effort is only for work. Nuzero has forgotten all of his lessons.
I swallow and Nuzero disappears, his hand no longer on my door, his fingers no longer attached to a part of my space. I stand quickly and the remains of my protein cube fall to the floor. It maintains its integrity while mine falls apart. I press the button to open the door and it gapes silently to reveal the empty hall.
It was so much easier than I expected.
Opening the door.
My footfall makes no sound as I run. I feel the hallway open in front of me, offering space I didn’t know I had. I travel up and down and left and right. Searching. I look through all of the space I can find for Nuzero. He is nowhere. It seems impossible, because the feeling of him fills the hallways, the heavy slope of his shoulders lingers in every curve of the wall. The apartments don’t have buzzers or numbers, so I don’t know which is his. The thought has never bothered me before, but today I want to know. The sun burns through the nano particulate glass as bright as my desire to know where Nuzero comes from and where he is going. The rising tide of a hand means only one thing. It is not love, like a bent back or an arrangement of food on a plate, it is goodbye.
On the first floor I finally find him, his silhouette outlined by the blazing light of the unpolarized front door. It has been so long since the front door has been used, I’m not sure it will work anymore. Nuzero’s name escapes my lips as the door slides open and a blast of heat rips into my face, my chest, my legs. The sound of his name is torn to shreds by the hot, agitated molecules of air. His back is turned to me as he steps out into the open world; the world that we try not to see by polarizing the glass and building our blocks higher and higher, away from the floods and the quakes and the storms.
I am still, as I was when Nuzero held his hand to my door. My lips are formed in an O of fear and something I think I could possibly call love. Once, when I was young, the lights went out and Mother brought candles out of a locked drawer. I watched them all night as they melted, sinking into a puddle of wax. Nuzero is a candle and I watch as he melts. I want to run out onto the blistering concrete to save him. Instead I make it as far as the door and close it. As though he hears the silent slide of the closing door Nuzero turns and my hand rises. I lay it flat on the glass and feel the heat of the sun on my fingers. Goodbye says my hand. To Nuzero. To Mother and Father. To the mainland.
I love you.
Behind me I hear a sound, a shuffle, a rustle, a gasp. I turn to see the hallway, packed with my neighbours. They cling to each other beneath our stack of building blocks and their hands rise like a tide, palms out.