The warm glow from the fiber-place filled the large room. Since the abolishment of fossil fuels, many innovations were necessary. This appliance had glowing fibers dancing in an updraft to create the illusion of fire. It didn’t warm the air, but kindled the heart.
The family sat facing the fiber-place. But each stared at the device glowing in their hands. Depending on its use they were called torches, or smarphs. A cool glow lit their masked faces.
No one spoke. The sound of snapping of fibers and the humming fan filled the room. Fingers danced over mini-keyboards as each communicated with distant friends. These friends, perhaps known for years, had rarely been met in person. All stayed safely within subterranean living quarters throughout the world.
A multitude of factors made it unsafe to venture outside. They were told the sun’s radiation, poor air quality and the lingering pandemic were toxic.
Modern technology connected people despite their inability to meet in person.
Skittle’s father, Gramps, sat in his dim corner reading a book lit by a small lamp clipped onto the book itself. His intermittent chuckles punctuated the silence. Random guffaws sent light bouncing around the room.
Drone, Skittle’s husband, believed Gramps had become senile. And, maybe worse, was terminally behind the times. Drone knew books were archaic and wasteful. They were ‘dust collectors’ and ‘bug huts.’
‘Imagine reading a book when more efficient info transfer is available.’
He tolerated Gramps, for Skittle. Gramps caused little trouble and, except for his books, took little space. Drone ignored him, often forgetting he existed at all. Until he laughed and waved that crazy light around. Or started his mythical ‘good old days’ rant.
Their home had no windows. They never worried about sunlight, nor dangerous radiation, seeping in. The torch function of smarphs fulfilled their lighting needs. Global warming made candles obsolete. Their daughter, Feather, had never seen one.
Clock time ruled. Drone had removed electric clocks for being wasteful. Their incessant ticking annoyed him.
Skittle asked Drone, “Dee, what’s the time?”
Drone checked his smarph. “Almost one.”
She leaped up. “It’s late! No wonder I’m hungry.” She moved into the kitchen. “Any requests?”
Feather set down her smarph and followed. “How can I help, Mom?”
They prepared a snack and called the men in. The four made sandwiches buffet-style and returned to their spots near the fiber-place.
Gramps liked socializing. He could share memories about times past. He gestured with his sandwich as he talked.
“When I was young, we’d have barbecues in the yard, or the park. We’d sit at a picnic table and feast on juicy meat, corn on the cob, watermelon, potato salad… everything! We’d run around, kick a ball, or play catch. It was paradise.”
Drone mumbled. “Pure fantasy…” Skittle gave him a look. “So Gramps… We should thank you for climate change? All your open fires and smoke?”
Gramps smiled. His son-in-law needed new material. “Yes Drone. Put that on my head stone. I had so much fun, it was well worth it.”
“Except it didn’t happen. It’s always been like this.”
Gramps scoffed. “Kids, these days…”
Drone addressed Feather. “When I went to Burrows high, we traveled everywhere in Vaccity by tunnel. No one went outside if they could help it.” He looked around for support. “And, I’ll have you know, I’m not a kid. I’m the grown up. I pay the bills in this house.”
Gramps laughed and slapped his thigh for emphasis. “Oh my, Drone, you tell a good one…”
Drone said, “I remember when Governor Gnusome covered the river. Everyone loved it. It’d been dry for years.”
Gramps nodded. “True…”
“Then he changed his name to Knowsall. What a genius. Covering it saved commuters from ever going outside. He only made its use mandatory because people didn’t know what was good for them.”
Gramps interjected, “They included escape hatches in case of flooding.”
Drone nodded. “Trams made it easy. No exposure to the elements. What an innovation. Made himself governor in a landslide. It was expensive, but he created so many jobs. He truly is the twilight of the world.”
Cole came in. He was Feather’s older brother, fifteen, going on three.
Drone gave him a hard look. “Where’s your mask? Always wear your mask. You know that.”
He looked at his family. “You’re not wearing masks.”
“Give me some food then, so I can breathe, without a lecture.”
Drone rolled his eyes. Skittle got up and prepared Cole a plate.
“You know, Cole, wearing masks offers many benefits. One is, they’re safe.”
“For instance, I’ve never seen your mother’s face. And we’re still together. Never got sick. Thanks to masks.”
Skittle called from the kitchen. “Stop being silly, Dee.”
“Anyway, I was telling Feather about our fearless governor. Knowsall. He married us after the virtual, virtue gathering. A hundred thousand weddings at once. Online, of course.”
Skittle said, “So magical…”
“Awesome…” Feather loved these stories.
Drone continued. “I’ll never forget Governor Knowsall saying, ‘I now pronounce you person and person…’ We shared the sweetest fist bump ever. Didn’t we, Skit?”
She dabbed her eyes. Tucking her handkerchief away, she asked, “Everyone done eating?”
Everyone nodded and pulled their masks on.
Drone addressed Cole. “So, kiddo, haven’t seen you today. Where you been?”
“Mooch, Maisy and I went to the beach.”
“Not in the water though.”
“Yeah, we went swimming.”
He couldn’t comprehend. “You went to the beach!? Trying to kill yourself? How many times…?”
“Relax, Dad. You taught me to swim in those tunnels under the city. When I was little. Remember?”
“Cole… Swimming the sweres is one thing. But the beach has pollution and nasty creatures… And tsunamis.”
“It was amazing. Flocks of birds flew…”
“As I said, disease ridden creatures…”
Feather glanced at her mother with a sad face. Skittle patted her head.
Drone said, “At least you wore a mask, right?”
“Not to swim, Dad. I need to breathe.”
“But the air, Cole. It’s poisonous.”
“It’s clean. No one around. Nice breeze.” Cole imagined the moment. “Could see forever.”
“You went in daylight?”
“We had fun. It was great.”
“Fun? I tell you things so you can survive. But you don’t listen… All about fun.”
Smiling, Cole gave Gramps a thumbs up. “Gramps inspired me. He showed us ‘Beach Blanket…’”
“Oh my god! Not Beach Blanket Bingo!” He turned on Gramps. “I can’t believe you. Teaching your grandson to gamble? It got banned for decadence. Half naked people running around…”
Gramps held his head up. “I showed him ‘Gidget’ too.”
“Watch your language, Gramps. There are children here. Talk like that with friends, but not in my house.”
Cole and Gramps looked at each other and shrugged.
“I’ve told you a thousand times, ‘stay out of the sun.’ How can I stress it’ll make you sick? That’s what torches are for… and tunnels. I don’t expose myself to deadly radiation.”
Drone got in Cole’s face. “What’d you say?”
Cole stepped back. “Look at us, Dad.”
Drone shrugged. “What?”
“We grope around in the dark. Stare at our smarphs all day. Do you look in a mirror? Ever? You can’t, ‘cause you’re blind.”
“I see your disrespect. Don’t need the sun for that. I see the fool I’ve raised.”
Skittle tried to intervene. “Please, Drone. Don’t…”
Cole stepped forward. “You’ve never seen me.”
Shaking his head, “Don’t use up your sympathy credits, Cole. Just don’t.”
“Turn off your smarph. What do you see?”
One by one, all but Drone turned their smarphs off. The gloom deepened. Cole flipped off the fiber-place. The fan wound down. Only Drone’s smarph emitted light. He set it to torch mode and aimed it at everyone in the room.
His laugh sounded forced. “I see you!”
Cole opened the exterior door. Sunlight flooded the room. Everyone squinted. In a few moments, they lowered their hands and smiled behind their masks. Drone’s torch could not compete.
Skittle picked up a paper from the floor. “Thought I’d lost that.”
“No place to hide, out here.” Cole stepped into the light and stretched.
Blinking, Feather moved to the doorway. Shielding her eyes, she looked to the distance. “I see trees. Are those birds?”
A distant flock wheeled about before settling into the tree tops. Mountains filled the horizon. There were no loud sounds, but so much to hear.
“It’s so beautiful. How have I never seen this?”
Skittle touched Feather’s shoulder. “Is it safe? Maybe…” A gentle breeze ruffled her hair. She shut her eyes, pulled down her mask, and breathed deeply. “Do I smell flowers?”
Cole threw his mask away and shouted. Laughing, he jumped and spun about. Feather joined the celebration.
“Stop it, kids. What will the neighbors think?”
Feather took her mother’s hand. “No one cares, Mom. They’re all staring at smarphs.”
Skittle joined hands with her children. They solemnly skipped in a circle and, gaining speed, began to laugh.
With a huge grin, Gramps watched from the doorway.
In his raspy voice, he sang an old rock ‘n roll anthem. “I’m free. I am free…”