Fiction · 02/10/2016

Birthright

I got a message saying a lawyer wanted to contact me about an inheritance. It was the oldest spam on record. I ignored the first three. But they didn’t stop. Eventually, a lawyer, Mr. Hopewell, flew out from the capital to meet with me.

“I assure you it is legit, Ms. Gannet. Now that the National Parks system has been disbanded all the properties are being sold. However, your great-great-great-whatever uncle insisted on a clause in the contract that stated if the park was ever closed, the house would reverted back to his next of kin. Granted it was nearly 200 years ago, but you’re it. You’re the only person from his bloodline left on Earth.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, do you have any cousins?”

“No. No one does.”

“Exactly.”

The house was of the old variety, built of bricks and wood. It sat on the ground in the heart of the capital under a protective, climate-controlled dome. It had been built there before the capital was the capital when everyone lived on the ground. I had never heard of the relative who had lived in it, Jackson Morton Cole. He was rich and famous in his time, a renowned college football coach. When he died he left his home to the National Parks Service and they gave guided tours of it for years and years.

“You could, of course, sell it. The dome is worth a whole lot of money. I brought the appropriate files in case that’s what you want to do.”

The climate-controlled dome had kept the acre around the house semi-fertile and therefore priceless. But, of course, everything had a price, priceless things most of all. I did want to sell it. What else would I do with it? But his insistence that I should made me reconsider.

“I’d like to see it, I guess.”

“Oh sure, surely. That can be arranged too.”

So I flew to the capital for the very first time. The whole place hummed of generators and traffic, a mechanical buzz that radiated in the air. The buildings were all sculpted out of power plastic, shiny and sleek, floating off the ground on their raised platforms where they could catch every available ray of light from the Sun to keep running.

The ground itself was worthless. Even people like me with hardly any credit lived off the ground. Only the homeless or desperate still populated the scorched, dry dirt. It was where people went to buy black-market items, or commit illicit crimes in the shadows of the platforms. Criminals and tourists were the only people left on the Earth.

The tourists went to the ground see the ruins. Crumbling blocks of homes, what was left of the museums that once held our art. There were a lot of credits in ground tourism. Or there had been until the air went bad. It was still technically breathable, but people were more conscious of the long-term effects. The very young, the elderly, anyone with a compromised immune system were advised not to visit the ground. PSAs scared the population and kept them on the platforms. So places like the Morton Cole House withered, lost funding and closed.

I didn’t have credits for a Floating Taxi, so I took the tubes to the ground and walked a horizontal mile to the house. The last tour had gone out two days prior, but the caretaker was still on the property. She lived in a small pod on the grounds. Egg-shaped and well kept, it was an old model, but had all the basics needed for survival.

“You’re so lucky,” she said when I introduced myself. “This is a special place.” Her badge said Lorna Thorp, Park Manager. It was a relic job. No one had jobs like that anymore. Now everyone coded or pushed buttons. Lorna walked for a living. Touring visitors through the old house.

“Did you bring a rental pod to sleep in?” she asked.

“No, I figured I’d stay in the house.”

“You can’t stay in the house. It’s protected. It’s not for living in anymore.”

“But the park’s closing so what does it matter?”

Lorna looked terrified and patronizing all at once.

“Let me show you,” she said. So Lorna gave me her tour. We walked through the halls and rooms, careful to stay on the marked, lighted path, not touching the artifacts, the furniture, the walls or framed doors. She showed me where my ancestor and his family ate, where they slept, where they watched television, where they went on the Internet. She pointed out the beautifully preserved desktop computer. It could still turn on. We wouldn’t turn it on, of course, but it still could. Lorna wore gloves and touched everything gingerly if she touched it at all. She had a sincere reverence for even the most mundane objects in the house.

All I saw were outdated utensils. Things we had better versions of now; things we didn’t even need anymore.

My great-great-whatever uncle’s old footballs sat in a case in his office, spot-lit under glass.

“I don’t even know how to throw one of those,” I said.

“I can show you with a replica we have in the visitor center. You can’t use these originals. They’re too precious.”

“Haven’t you ever used one? Sat in a chair? Touched a plate with your bare hands?”

“Never,” she said proudly.

“Haven’t you ever wanted to?”

Rather than answer my question, she gave me a rather long-winded, technical explanation of why we should not.

“I’m going to stay in the house tonight, and if you’d like to you’re welcome to too,” I said. Lorna considered my offer and I saw the struggle inside her through each twitch of her mouth and flick of her eyes.

“No, I won’t,” she finally said. She stayed in her pod that night. Officially, she had to clear off the property in three days time. She seemed to have no intention of leaving early.

The climate controlled dome blocked out the electrical hum of the city above us. I had never heard such quiet before. Lorna kept a soundtrack of wind and animal chirps playing for the guests. She said people found it peaceful. It was eerie. But I didn’t ask her to turn it off.

At first I just wandered around the house touching everything Lorna had just spent an hour telling me not to touch. I plunked out some notes on the piano. I had no idea how to play. I pushed the rocking chair in the living room and then sat in it and rocked. I bent a metal fork for no reason at all. This was all mine now. I wasn’t a steward of it the way Lorna was. It was just my stuff. I had an overwhelming desire to break everything in the house. The only thing that stopped me was its value.

The large, empty house was terrifying. It creaked and shuttered. I had never been alone in such a large space. There were nooks and closets everywhere. Places to hide, places to get lost and never found again.

I ate my self-heating dinner at the large dining room table. Seven empty chairs kept me company. I wished Lorna had agreed to sleep in the house. But was comforted by the knowledge she was just outside, and had locked the portal of the dome as we parted for the night.

I checked the locks on all the many doors three times before heading up stairs to choose a bedroom. The master, as Lorna had referred to it, was gigantic and suffocating. I couldn’t imagine sleeping in it. I was used to small one-room pods. Nothing like this existed anymore. Or at least nothing I had access to.

I chose the smallest room in the house to sleep in. Lorna had called it the “servant’s room.” I slept fitfully and dreamt for the first time in years and years. The antique mattress was lumpy and too soft. I woke up gasping after being buried alive by an ex-boyfriend in the last dregs of a dream.

I spent the next day outside with Lorna on the grounds. The house felt like a tomb. Lorna walked me around to each tree, explained watering and rot. The museum had a special permit that allowed her to water on a drip system. She didn’t know if it would be revoked now that the museum was closed.

Lorna was at least a decade older than me. It wasn’t much, but it was everything. Things changed so rapidly that her childhood had not been mine and mine would be unrecognizable to the next generation.

Lorna gingerly took a replica football from its case and showed me how to throw it. She had a good arm, she said. She had been practicing for years. Studying old tapes of football games from the museum’s collection that she watched on an obsolete viewing platform, grainy and 2D.

“Back when we were fully staffed, we’d play touch football games for the tour groups to watch. We’d teach the children how to hold it, and throw it, and run with it.” Lorna looked wistful and sad. She loved her job. I wasn’t sure I’d ever known anyone who did. “Pig skin,” she said. I nodded and decided not to ask what she meant.

“What are you going to do with it?” Lorna asked me that evening as the dome illumination faded into a mock twilight.

“Sell it, I guess. What else can I do?”

“You could keep it a museum, run it yourself.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“I could help you.” I saw the desperation in her eyes, though she tried to hide it.

We fell silent. The fake birds in the trees chattered around us. The fake breeze blew my hair across my face.

I convinced Lorna to spend the next night in the house. “You’ve earned it,” I said. She looked tired and acquiesced. She was nervous walking around the house without her gloves. She sat stiff and timid in the kitchen with me as I heated dinner.

“You’ve really never sat in one of the chairs before?”

“Never.”

“They’re not very comfortable.”

“No,” she laughed. “They’re not. All these years I’ve wondered. But they’re really not.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Seventeen years next fall.”

“What will you do now?”

“I don’t know. I never wanted to do anything else.” I set dinner in front of her. But she didn’t seem to notice. “What will you do with the credits from the sale?”

“I have no idea.”

“There must be something you’ve always wanted to do?”

I thought for a moment. “No. I never thought I would be able to do anything so I never bothered to think of anything to want.”

“Some would call that enlightenment.”

“Maybe. Or just a severe lack of imagination.”

I had always wanted to want something. I knew people who did. People who had passions and broken hearts and had succeeded and had failed. People like Lorna. Lorna should have inherited the house. She would have fought for it, kept it running for as long as she could. I thought I should give it to her, but I knew I wasn’t going to.

“What’s this called again?” I asked holding up a plate.

“China.”

“I hate it. I think it’s so ugly,” I said and before I could stop myself I dashed it to the floor. Lorna stood, too late to stop me. Her hand covered her mouth. She looked like she might cry.

The plate lay shattered on the floor. I tossed Lorna a floral patterned teacup. She caught it. I waited as she cradled and clutched it. Silent minutes passed. I just stared at her, furious at the burden that had to been forced on me, excited to finally have something to be burdened by.

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Sacha Siskonen works as a Museum Educator for a historical society where she dips candles, churns butter, and makes rope. Her work has recently appeared in Quarter After Eight, Requited and The Account. Her poetry chapbook, Turbulence, is available from Dancing Girl Press. She blogs infrequently at The Saskatchewan Review.