L.A. Story Houry
The phone rang. I stared at the communication device. Normally, it was an innocuous thing -- pastel blue plastic -- but today it scared me.
I knew it would be George. I could just tell by the jittery nature of "his" ring. My husband, Jack, said that notion was absurd -- that every ring sounded exactly the same. I disagreed but eventually I quit arguing.
I knew George's ring.
"Hello," I said, softly. I held the receiver carefully as if I thought it would bite.
"Margie?" George's voice came through the antique device like a warbling ghost. "Is that you, Margie? Speak up."
"I'm here, George. What do you need? I'm on my lunch hour."
"Great, great ... Hey, Marge, can I borrow the Jeep again? Can I?"
Oh, God. I thought. He's in a bad way. He's repeating himself.
Aloud, I said, "Well, George ... Jack was kind of mad last time. He said you messed it up inside last time you took it out."
"Oh ... oh, maybe, I did. I'm sorry. I'll be really careful this time. I promise ... I promise."
"Well, then I guess it will be okay ... If you promise to take good care of it this time."
"I ... oh, yes, I promise. Oh, I do, Margie. I'll be right there. Thank you, thank you, thank you." The was a click as George hung up. He would probably run all the way to my house.
I hoped for the best, but hope was shattered the moment George appeared at my front door. That is when I knew George's obsession with leaving Cranstonville had taken a nasty turn. I suddenly wished I had not told him he could take the Jeep.
I am not certain what I expected, but I know it was not the unkempt wild-eyed man who stood before me.
He walked past me and into the living room without waiting to be invited. When George's mania had first begun, he was well groomed for these occasions -- like the traveler he so wanted to be.
However today, George's blonde hair hugged his skull in limp, greasy strings. He appeared to have slept in the same clothes for quite some time and he had not shaved in as long. His brown eyes, usually so sad and thoughtful, darted nervously.
I barely recognized George as the creature who commenced to pacing agitatedly around my living room. He was distracted and heedless to his environment even when he bumped his shin on the sharp corner of my coffee table.
Being George's big sister had not been easy over the last couple of years, since he first started showing signs of "the phobia." But, I found I was not merely concerned about him now -- I was also wary of him and this caused me a great, sickening distress. I watched him edge up to a window. He cautiously peered outside, careful not to be seen.
"They're following me, you know. They know I've chosen today. They'll try to stop me from leaving," George announced in a stage whisper that wavered on the brink of tears.
"George, please," I reasoned, "what are you talking about? Nobody is following you. You can't leave the SCEB, nobody can leave, so why would anybody try to stop you?"
The SCEB psychologist had told me never to indulge George's paranoid fantasies. He said we needed to speak to George reasonably and keep him grounded in reality. There was a delicate science to the process. Obsessions like George's were not uncommon among the city SCEB's, I'm told, but when one developed it ... well, the end results almost never turned out well.
As I spoke to George now, it seemed my logic evaporated the moment it left my lips because he only glanced at me briefly, then returned his attention to the window ... and to his favorite obsession.
"Have you ever seen Clarksburg, Margie? I mean really seen it. The last time I went to the Cranstonville city limits, I took binoculars," George said with a strange little giggle. "I'd never done that before. It's funny, but I don't know why I haven't. I don't. It's something so stupidly obvious that I can't believe it had never occurred to me to bring binoculars ... I mean I thought to myself 'Of course!'"
Clarksburg was the only town nearby which could be seen from Cranstonville. One had to travel to Cranstonville's city limits on the south side of town and, if it was a clear day, one could not miss seeing a bit of Clarksburg. I had stopped going near the city limits ... it was disconcerting and I did not want to become obsessed the way George was.
"You're rambling, George," I said. "Of course, I've seen Clarksburg. What's your point?"
I tried to be patient, but I detested these discussions of anything to do with things outside of the Cranstonville SCEB.
George's eyes fixed on me sharply.
"Yes, but with the binoculars, I could actually see movement. People other than the ones here in Cranstonville. I saw people -- strangers," he stressed. I saw an excited gleam in his eyes.
After a moment his expression became wistful and he said, "Margie, I've never seen strangers before. What's it like?"
"How should I know, George? I'm only four years older than you. Why do you always expect me to remember so much? I was barely five when the Cranstonville city limits were sealed to make the SCEB. That was thirty-two years ago," I said.
I struggled to take the edge out of my voice. I found I had developed an irritability with George's endless questions about what life was like before the SCEB's were enclosed. I worried this irritability had become as much a problem as George's phobia.
The Self-Contained Environmental Biospheres (or SCEB's) had become necessary after the Earth's weather patterns had grown more and more erratic. Summer temperatures were hotter and hotter, storms were increasingly violent, tidal waves were common and winter temperatures had become colder and colder.
Wildly aberrant and dangerous conditions were responsible for the loss of billions of lives all over the world -- far more than any war. The ozone layer had thinned dangerously and if "natural" disasters did snatch away lives back then, then skin cancer would drain it away more slowly.
To protect and sustain human lives, entire cities were enclosed into domed force fields -- SCEB's. Each city was self-contained and virtually independent.
The price for this "protection" was that, once a city was enclosed to establish the SCEB, no one else could leave or enter after the force field was activated. The Cranstonville, Tennessee, SCEB was no different.
"I was only a year old at that time, Margie. I can't remember anything," George now replied quietly.
"George, I've told you, over and over, the stories and memories. You know everything I know. I have nothing more."
I sighed and George looked disappointed, but he agreed.
"Yes, I guess I do."
He walked over and embraced me tightly. "Goodbye Sissy," he said against my hair.
I did not care for the finality in his voice, but I had heard it before. I kissed his unshaven cheek. He had not called me "Sissy" in a very long time and I was glad to see him behave more calmly.
I wanted to say, "I'll see you later," but I managed to bite back the comment. I did not want to argue with him again.
After acquiring my keys, George darted outside to the Jeep. From my front porch, I watched him adjust the solar panels to collect optimum sunlight. George always like to travel at high speeds. If he drove at 45 mph, I figured he would be on the outskirts of Cranstonville within twenty minutes. Of course, he would never get past the city limits so I did not worry beyond that.
As I watched George drive away, I was hit with an unexpected wave of emotion. I missed my brother -- missed the golden-haired boy I used to run with through the streets of Cranstonville. I sat down on my living room couch and cried for five minutes. Even though the crying episode upset and confused me, I felt much better for it. Yet, I was still left with an ugly blot of anxiety which crawled around the back of my mind like a scurrying spider.
For the rest of the day I could not concentrate on anything for too long. I took the day off from the Insect House, where I was the head Entomologist who controlled the ratio of good insects and bad insects for the Cranstonville SCEB. It was a slow time of the year for this extremely important job and I knew my many assistants could handle the work without me for the day.
In Tennessee, where I live, the Cranstonville SCEB, along with all the other Tennessee SCEB's, reported daily to the state's nuclear biodome -- and new state capital -- located in Memphis.
Modern SCEB's were far more sophisticated than the experimental biospheres which were used in the 1990's. Unlike those glass-enclosed structures, present SCEB's were enclosed by an enormous domed force field which was powered by day with sunlight, or more specifically, ultra violet rays. These rays were easily collected due to the thinner ozone. By night the cities ran off of generators powered by stored, surplus energy gathered during the day.
The price for survival had been our freedom.
There were teleportation methods of exchanging goods or supplies -- but human beings could not safely travel this way -- yet.
As a result of such prolonged enclosure (even in such a largely defined space) phobias, such as the one George suffers from were not uncommon. However, George's phobia is the worst manifestation I've ever known -- at least in Cranstonville.
Psychologists and psychiatrists were currently researching this particular phobia. The looming question was why someone would become so obsessed with leaving when, early on in human history, it was common for the majority of people to live in one area their entire lives -- rarely traveling beyond their own city or village limits.
The experts have theorized, but I'm inclined to agree, the difference was the degree of choice. The citizens of a SCEB have had no choice -- they are in all reality -- trapped. Some people, like George, were more sensitive to this fact than others. Most people have developed coping mechanisms out of necessity.
Most people, like myself, coped by concentrating on our everyday lives. I focused on my husband, my two sons, my brother and my job. I tried not to dwell unnecessarily on a fact of life I could not change.
What would I not give to embrace my grandmother again? She lived in the Memphis Nuclear SCEB. I have spoken to her on the phone many times, but knowing I will never see or touch her again would drive me slowly insane if I allowed it. Sometimes I deeply resented George's indulgence in weakness.
I have seen news reports on television that underground methods of transportation were being developed, but I have known I would not live to enjoy the benefits of this technology. However, I rested comfortably in the knowledge that my children and their descendants would be able to travel freely.
I now noticed the day had grown late and, even long after my husband and children returned home, there was still no sign of George. As the darkness grew, so did my anxiety until it was a cloud that shadowed me in a place where I was afraid.
My husband, Jack, added to my anxiety when he came home with some upsetting news about Memphis. Everyone who watched the news reports on television knew a freakish, unrelenting rainfall began in that part of the state three months previously and the mighty Mississippi River had far exceeded its banks.
"Is it still raining in Memphis?" I asked as we sat down to supper.
"I'm afraid so," Jack said with a sigh.
"I don't understand why there is so much worry. The coastal cities are the ones with the real threat of being covered by water one day. Memphis's force field will protect the part of the city that's threatened and, sooner or later, the rains will end," I commented.
"It's not that simple," Jack explained. "Of course, the strength of the biodome's force field will hold the waters back, but there is a question of how this will affect the absorption of the UV's which power the force field.
"The depth of the water in some areas has blocked the UV rays. The whole dome is an energy sponge. Any significant blockage could theoretically weaken the force field. Weakening the force field is unthinkable. In all our cities, we now have a carefully controlled environment. So, if a SCEB were to be violated and the force field weakened or destroyed, the citizens' food supply could be threatened.
"Also, that's not to mention the threat of dangerous weather conditions, which are almost constant now, but also the very real hazard presented by undiluted UV's," Jack said with an extravagant flourish of his hands. He had been punctuating his sentences with stabs of his fork.
"Has our survival been worth all this?" I asked. I had not really meant to speak aloud and I knew this question would anger Jack. I laid my fork down and fought the thickness in my throat and the tears which threatened. Damn it, where was George?
Jacked leveled a dark glance at me. He was angry. "I hate it when you talk like one of those 'Natural Selectionists.'"
Jack considered Natural Selectionists to be the worst of fools. In the beginning, when the cities first began to be enclosed, rebels arose calling themselves "Natural Selectionists." These people, who claimed they would rather die free at the mercy of the natural elements than to live safely within a SCEB, were horrified at the SCEB project and terrible battles were fought as a world government took action to preserve the lives of "The Many" at the expense of a few.
Many of the surviving fanatics, though defeated, still refused to choose a "Home City" and be enclosed, so they were left to wander as homeless outsiders, unprotected from the natural elements.
The end result was that the plan was carried out anyway as most people opted for their best chance at survival.
This time Jack said no more. He would argue with me tonight, as our sons, Todd, 10, and Brian, 8, were present and listening to every word with wide, anxious eyes.
"What about Grammy? Is she going to be okay?" Brian asked.
"Oh, of course, Darling. Grammy doesn't live anywhere near the river," I reassured my son. I only wished someone could reassure me.
Later, after supper, I told Jack about George when the boys went to their rooms to do their homework.
"You haven't heard from him since," Jack muttered, almost to himself.
"That's right. You don't think anything is wrong, do you? I'm trying not to worry, but this episode seemed so much stranger than the others," I said.
The doorbell rang at that moment and when I answered I found two policemen on my porch.
They asked questions about George ... about my Jeep. And then they asked if I would go with them. I cast a frightened glance toward my husband, who met it with a tight smile that was meant to be reassuring, but only served to make me feel worse because I could see he was also afraid.
The ride in the patrol car was slow because of the waning light.
"Sorry for the slow ride," said one of the officers, "but we don't like using our auxiliary power until after dark."
I nodded as if I cared about what he said.
As we traveled, I considered what George had asked me earlier. "I've never seen stranger, Margie. What's it like?"
I wish I could have remembered enough to tell him. Our mother had chosen to live in Cranstonville -- our father's hometown. In doing so, she forsook her native Memphis. When Cranstonville was enclosed into a SCEB, she didn't know about our father's melanoma, which would take his life a mere decade later. Mother died just two years ago ... and George's phobia began manifest itself.
As far as strangers were concerned, I remember visiting the outskirts of the city, in the beginning, when it was fashionable to do so. Everyone thought is was so fascinating to watch the natural seasons which no longer affected us.
And I remember seeing strangers. Nomads which traveled in packs. They were remnants of the fanatics who had so stubbornly insisted on freedom. Hooded faces and bodies dressed heavily against the dangerous UV's. Sometimes it was easy to forget they were people.
Once, when I was sixteen, I once saw a young man traveling amongst a pack. His group even camped and hunted near the SCEB for a few days as the weather permitted. I would not have kept coming back except this young man noticed me standing at the city's outskirts -- a lone, teenage girl dressed lightly for warm temperatures. And, I noticed that he noticed me.
I could not see his face, but I watched his head turn toward me several times and I could feel his eyes. While the members of his group were otherwise occupied on the second day, he approached me. It was strange, frightening and exciting.
He wore white as did most of his group -- reflective of the sunlight. Also, boots, loose trousers, and a long, belted robe. A long scarf wrapped his head and neck and tucked into the collar of his robe. He wore black gloves on his hands and dark glasses over his eyes. He was tall and lean from travel.
He stood before me, as close as the force field would allow. I must have appeared nearly naked to him in a skirt and short-sleeve tunic. My blonde hair hung unbound around my shoulders and my blue eyes were uncovered.
The force field blocked sound so we could not speak because the other would not hear. The next day, he waited for me in the same spot. We faced each other and he removed his sunglasses and opened his scarf enough for me to see his face.
He was beautiful and I looked into his dark eyes and smiled.
The third day, I didn't know if he could read or write but I wanted him to know my name so I wrote it on a small chalkboard and held it up for him. MARGIE.
He looked at it and nodded. He placed a hand on his heart and bowed slightly. Then he glanced behind him as it appeared someone from his group had called him back to his group. He turned back and waved goodbye. I smiled and waved.
The fourth day I came to the same spot and found the camp was deserted and the group was gone. I sank down to the ground and wept. My heart was broken. As I cried, I realized there was some writing in the dirt outside the city limits.
I returned to the same spot everyday until the name could no longer be seen. I never saw Lucas again and I stopped going to the city's outskirts afterward. It was too painful. That was my one clear memory of strangers.
Currently, as I shook off my musings as I realized we had reached the southern outskirts of Cranstonville after what seemed like years. This was the side that faced the Clarksburg SCEB.
"We came to a stop near my Jeep and I climbed out of the patrol car. It all seemed so surreal that I had trouble connecting myself to the scene before me."
The solar panels from my Jeep were shattered and I saw bits of them scattered in the grass and gravel, looking like pieces of an exploded star in the weak light they reflected.
George had finally found a way to travel outside the Cranstonville city limits. Although I'm certain George's intention was not to die, the strength of the force field proved more powerful than George's desire to leave.
The Jeep probably hit the force field at nearly fifty mph, the policemen guessed. The front end was completely destroyed. Flecks of green paint clung to the invisible shield and appeared to be eerily suspended in the air ...
... and then there would be the sight of George etched forever in my mind.
Despite horrendous internal injuries, and a massive head wound, George had managed to crawl from the Jeep. He made it to the force field and had died sitting up against it. There were large, ugly smears of blood on the invisible wall behind him. The blood was suspended behind George in crimson streaks and swirls. He was half-propped, seemingly by nothing.
It was a jolting reminder of the forced permanence of the community in Cranstonville.
I looked past George, to the landscape I had intentionally ignored and I was again startled. I had forgotten that it was winter outside our carefully maintained SCEB. Snow covered the ground, beginning after the invisible line of the force field.
I remember once, several years ago, watching snow fall while lying on my back in a Cranstonville field. Snow which fell but never reached me. Snow which never touched me.
I also remember seeing a monstrous tornado. It was taller than the SCEB and actually brushed against it. Of course, the force field held. The tornado pulled up nearby trees outside the biodome and hurled them everywhere.
I couldn't help but wonder about a world where I miss so much beauty in order to avoid so much danger. Who could say what was right?
All I do know is that I used to keep track of the natural seasons. But, George never stopped.
I bitterly mourned George's death. I found myself revisiting the spot where he died. I would go to a gentle slope nearby where I could sit and stare at the Clarksburg skyline. I took binoculars the last time I went.
George was right ... I could see some movement.
L.A. Story Houry is a columnist and published author of fiction, poetry and non-fiction feature stories. Currently, she is the author of a humorist-style column, THE STORY HOUR, which appears weekly in the Daily Corinthian (Corinth, Mississippi). In poetry and fiction, Houry's work has appeared in Aoife's Kiss (both print and online versions), Aphelion, the Between Kisses Newsletter, and the Expressions Newsletter.
Published by permission of the author.