‘How long before you give in then, hey?’ Mike said, his voice crackling through the silence of the unused underground rail-tunnel. He was carrying an old-timey lamp he’d sparked from one of the matches that now littered the bottom of a pair of escalators in a half-moon shape. Clare had kicked an off-centre gap into the semi-circle; he didn’t seem to have noticed, waving the lamp around.
They had walked for a while in silence before he’d spoken, and it rattled her.
‘It isn’t quitting, or giving up,’ she began, but trailed off.
‘It’s just your tone then?’
‘Clare.’ He was ahead of her, but the way he spoke, he sounded as if he were staring at the back of her head. ‘You know what I mean. It’s an out. For now, at least. None of us know what the future even looks like, so of course it’s dangerous. Do you get that?’
This morning, they had been spooning their mouths with breakfast – porridge or something – and she had spoken to him of going for it: cryogenically freezing herself to be unfrozen when the world needed to be repopulated. When it could afford to be.
Clare’s brother refused to raise his voice, fearing the very vibration would cause the concrete to topple. Or that someone would overhear him. ‘You would be choosing to walk off from me then?’ He saw himself walking that very railroad alone. ‘And then what?’
‘When I wake up again, it’ll be a clean slate.’
‘Everyone you knew, dead.’
‘Mike,’ she said, lingering in his shadow. ‘Most of the people I’ve known are dead or missing, or trying and struggling to keep themselves alive, or I don’t know. You’re the only person I see regularly. We all keep to ourselves, don’t we?’
The skidding clatter of a rock shot through the tunnel. ‘Sign of the times,’ Mike said with a grunt.
They were heading further into the city.
‘There’s a clinic somewhere. It would’ve been in an alleyway back then, but everything has been gutted or demolished since, cleared out, so it would be like walking straight up the front staircase. No one’s waiting from a window across the street about to jump you.’
‘That’s the headline now. People are freezing themselves before the sun melts them instead.’
‘You know where the clinic is?’
‘That’s what I went to Pauline’s for,’ Clare said, matching her pace to Mike’s. They walked side by side then, glancing at one another in the lamp light. ‘I was meeting someone who had gone for the consultation.’
‘They didn’t go through with it?’ He flashed the pool of light behind them, hiding his face. Nothing was following them.
‘Not yet. She received a message from her father, who’s always lived outside of the country.’ She watched colour return to what lay ahead – grey, and black, true, but now that glow of yellow again. ‘Seeing him again might be impossible, but hearing from him meant he was there.’
Mike kept his head down as he walked. There was some distant rattle – probably a rat.
‘I’m going to die one day, out there, alone,’ he said.
Clare was mapping her response in her head before she said it – it’ll sound wrong no matter what I say, she thought, stepping onto a larger rock at her feet. ‘We all die alone.’
Ever the optimist.
Ahead there was bright, bright light. At last, she thought. The ground beneath her feet was firm. She couldn’t smell rat droppings, or the last remnants of oil stinking up the air.
She blinked her eyes against the fluorescence. She wasn’t in the tunnel anymore then. ‘What year is it?’ She wanted to feel like a pizzaboy. When they were little, Clare and her brother had watched episodes of Futurama on the old TV set. She wanted to pretend in her head it had been accidental: her body was waking up, and so too was her conscience, she supposed.
His voice floated around her head as if searching for which ear it preferred. ‘The same old year, my sister,’ he said. It was Mike’s voice, getting shaken back and forth, back and forth. ‘It’s been a week. They scammed you, or their technology is flawed as all hell.’
She wasn’t even in the pod anymore: this was what looked like a hospital room, but makeshift. So, a hospital room, she thought, forcing out a little chuckle inside her head.
There was a circle of cold in a spot on her neck – like a stinging sensation the size of the rim of a coffee cup.
Maybe she would feel less like a fool if she had tripped over her feet into the pod.
‘It didn’t work?’
Clare heard her voice. She sounded blocked-up. She swallowed down something that was barring her throat, an uneven lump of phlegm. ‘I should be asleep.’
‘You think if technology like that was proven successful, they would be charging so little for it?’
She almost lunged at him, and she would’ve, if her body had felt less like an overworked collapse of dough shoved into a hospital bed.
‘We were stupid for saying yes,’ he said, icing a gash hidden by hair.
‘What happened to you?’ He just shook his head at her. Like, don’t you worry.
‘I want to imagine the future that you could’ve ended up in,’ Mike said, reaching out with his other hand to hold hers. He was warmer – not from the whole ‘being cryogenically frozen for a week’ thing, but a different sort of warm.
‘You don’t need to prove to me that there’s some message in all this, that now I’ll live life a better person, knowing what could have been versus what I really have now – which is absolutely nothing but you getting chunks of your head taken out because you don’t watch where you’re going.’
He squeezed her hand and laughed, throwing his head back. It was overdramatic, but it was a comfort. ‘No no no, I’m not trying to prove anything!’ he said, returning his attention to her. ‘Just humour me and tell me what you wanted, waking up fifty years from now.’
With moonlight like a heavy weighted blanket, and a torch in the corner of the room held between little fingers, she formed a chatty fox with her left hand. It never would have mattered what she said.
I could be a mother if I wanted to, she thought, as she entertained the two little girls that had lost their parents six months ago. People survive, she had almost said to them when she first met them – it’s a strange curse of a thing to say, because not everyone does.
And then everyone dies anyway.
But she never did stop thinking about the sort of future she could have had. When they would have shaken her awake and proclaimed, ‘welcome to the future,’ oh you would so hope it was a welcome one. A better one.
Mike was looking after these girls, so they had a roof over their head. Clare wasn’t a mother. She didn’t need to be one. Waking up in the future hadn’t been about becoming a mother.
She reassured herself daily that it wasn’t an easy out. Cryogenically freezing herself was an elaborate attempt to be selfish and dream of escaping a post-apocalyptic hellscape, like she had seen in movies. She accepted that part. But she never accepted the idea that she couldn’t be selfish – I live my life for myself.
When the children were asleep, she found her brother waiting for her near the front door. This little shack could make a home. The wood beneath her feet creaked. Mike held a lamp and he smiled at her.
‘I thought you lost that lamp while I wasn’t around to hound you about it,’ Clare said.
‘I didn’t.’ His boots had left smudged mud stains on the salvaged welcome mat.
‘Where are we going?’
‘It’s just a walk, Clare,’ he said, swinging the lamp. ‘You love walks.’
Author: Keeley Young writes queer literature, fantasy fiction, poetry (sometimes), and emotion-focused work that he hopes makes people feel heard and seen, even just a little. You might be familiar with his work with ScratchThat from last year, where he wrote about cuddling with robots, communing with a dead gay lover, and summoning demons.
Artist: Emma Bruce is a multi-disciplinary visual artist from Yugambeh country working out of Meanjin. Her work discusses the relationship modern society has with the environment through an archival style in hopes to preserve the experience of being in the natural world. Her work hopes to invite her audience to partake in activities that nurture native flora and fauna as well as create a sense of pride to be part of it.
Editors: Kelly Rouzbehi and Breeh Botsford