The Caretaker

Photo by Inna Lesyk on Pexels.com

Jessie Gates would have traded the rest of her life for one good cup of coffee. As she mixed water with powdered eggs, she took a sip from her mug, grimaced, then dumped the rest of it into the sink.

            “What’s the matter with it today? Too weak again?” her husband, Harry, asked as he strode into the kitchen, still adjusting his neck tie.

            “Grounds,” she spat. “There’s too many grounds.”

            “I’ll tell Anderson to send someone to adjust the filter,” Harry said as he kissed the back of her head. He peered over her shoulder into the pan. “Eggs again? This is, what, the third day in a row? Don’t we have any cereal?”

            Jessie sighed. “Yes, but we’re out of milk. I didn’t know what else to make. Sorry.”

            Harry crossed to the refrigerator. “I’ll try to stop by the store today. What are you and Becks going to do?”

            Jessie shrugged. “Thought I might take her to the park. Or maybe that Mommy-and-Me class. I don’t know. I know it’s good for her to be around other kids, but all those other moms just seem so phony. I hate being around them, singing and clapping hands and doing stupid dances, when we all know what’s happen–”

            “Hi Mommy,” Becks said as she toddled into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes and clutching her stuffed raccoon.  

            “Hey baby,” Jessie said and swooped her up. “You want some eggs?”

            “Yuck,” said Becks. “No eggs.”

            Harry laughed. “You said it, kid.” He took a swig of coffee and spat it out. “You’re right. It’s gritty as ocean water. I’ll make sure Anderson sends someone over today to fix it.” He grabbed his briefcase and kissed Becks before walking out the door.

            Jessie rolled her eyes as she stirred the eggs. “Like you remember what ocean water tastes like.”

            An hour later, Jessie strapped a stiff-legged Becks into her stroller and headed to the park. “Walk!” Becks screamed. “No push!”

            “I know you can walk,” Jessie patiently explained. “But it’s easier for Mommy to push, okay?”

            “NO OKAY!”

            Jessie ignored her screams and turned at the next intersection. The canopy of trees overhead parted and they were drenched in warm sunlight.

            Becks stopped her tantrum and pointed overhead. “Look, Mommy. No clouds.”

            Jessie sighed. “Yep, another beautiful, sunny day. Like yesterday. And the day before. Isn’t it just perfect?”

            Becks twisted in her seat and looked at her mother. “I want to wear my yellow boots.”

            Jessie lips twisted in the corners. “I want to wear my yellow boots, too. Let’s see if we can find someone to ask about making it rain.”

            Even though it was still early in the morning, the park was overflowing with children and their mothers. Jessie recognized two women standing by the swings, and with a heavy sigh, pushed the stroller over to join them.

            “Hey, Jessie!” Mang called.

            “Hey guys,” said Jessie. “Not going to Mommy-and-Me today, either?”

            “It’s too pretty to be indoors,” Cici replied. “And you never know when they’re going to shut the park down for maintenance again, right?”

            Jessie raised an eyebrow. “You could just ask Kristoff, couldn’t you?”

            Cici shrugged. “He doesn’t really like to talk about work at home.”

            Jessie sighed. “You’re lucky. Harry insists on a full recap of our days every evening at dinner. Like anything interesting ever happens to either of us. Same old, same old, every damn day, right?”

            She looked into the eyes of the other mothers, but they merely gave her half-smiles and quickly looked away. Jessie sighed and bent over the stroller. “Becks, you can go play. You don’t have to stay and listen to boring Mommy-talk.”

            “Okay,” Becks said, then jumped up and ran to the slides.

            “So,” Cici asked, “What do you guys have planned for the day?”

            Jessie leaned against the stroller and looked up at the bright blue sky. “Oh, I packed a snack and I think I’ll take Becks for a ride on the El. Around and around and around. Maybe we’ll get off in Section H and see if we can find the bastard that did this to us. Good way to spend a Monday, right?” She looked down at the other women’s faces. “No?”

            Mang shook her head. “You really need to get over it, Jessie. Maybe ask for another round with the therapist. It’s not healthy to keep obsessing the way you do. You should focus on the positives.”

            “Positives?” Jessie repeated incredulously.

            “Yeah, well, we’re all Caretakers now for–”

            “—ever.”

            Mang rolled her eyes. “I was going to say for the Second Wave. It’s an important job. People will remember us long after we’re gone. They’ll thank us for our sacrifice.”

            “Besides,” Cici added, “what would you be doing if we weren’t here? You’d be living your life, raising your family. Nothing’s different, really, if you think about it.”

            “It is different, though!” Jessie hissed. “I never would have left my home and come here if I didn’t think there was something better waiting for us. Now what do we get?” She threw her hands up in the air. “Powdered eggs and sunny days every day for the rest of our lives! And meanwhile you, and I, our kids, and everyone we know get to slowly grow old, surrounded by this…this…,” she bent down and scooped up a handful of soil then thrust it before her, “…artificial shit! So how exactly am I supposed to get over it?”

            Mang and Cici exchanged a quick glance. “Try eating something different for breakfast?” Mang suggested.

            Jessie gaped at her for a moment, then spun the stroller around. “I’ll see you later. I’m not really up for playing make-believe today,” she said, then called out for Becks. “We’re leaving!”

            “I don’t want to!” Becks yelled back from across the playground.

            Jessie stomped her foot and pointed at the ground. “Come now or we are never coming back!” She knew that every other mother at the playground was staring at her from the corners of their eyes and her cheeks flushed. As hot tears blurred her vision, she regretted leaving her sunglasses at home. “Come on, Becks,” she tried again. “Please?”

            Head drooped, Becks slowly plodded over to Jessie. “You yelled at me,” she said. “You hurt my feelings.”

            “I’m sorry, honey. I’ll make it up to you,” Jessie said. “Can I carry you?”

            “No, that’s for babies. I walk.”

            “Okay. Can I hold your hand, though?”

            “Okay.”

            Becks raised her chubby arm and Jessie grasped it tightly. Then, with as much dignity as she could muster, she strode away from the park, steering the stroller with one hand.

            “Where are we going?” Becks asked five minutes later. Jessie realized she had been staring at the sidewalk and looked up. They were less than a block from the train station.

            “I thought we could go for a ride today. Would you like that? I brought a snack for you to eat on the train.”

            “Can I eat it now?”

            Jessie sighed. “Sure.”

            They sat down on the chrome benches. Becks swung her feet back and forth while Jessie folded the stroller into fourths and tucked it under her arm. After a moment, a bell began to chime and a Plexiglas wall slowly rose out of the ground between them and the tracks. A male voice said, “The next train will arrive in ten seconds. Please gather your belongings and dispose of any waste.”

            “Here we go,” said Jessie and rose.

            “Potty,” said Becks as she licked salt from her fingers.

            “Seriously?” The silver train pulled silently to the station and stopped. The doors slid open on the far side and Jessie could see passengers disembarking. “Can you hold it for two minutes?”

            Becks shook her head. “Now.”

            Jessie’s shoulders slumped and she took Becks by the hand. “Come on, then. We’ll catch the next one.”

            Ten minutes later, another train arrived and they were able to board. They settled into a compartment occupied by only one other person, a woman whose face was blocked by a book Jessie hadn’t seen in many years.

            “Wow, where’d you get that?” Jessie asked as the train sped off. “I didn’t know they had a copy in the library.”

“They don’t,” said the woman and lowered the book. Jessie gasped. The woman was old. Wrinkles traversed her forehead and her skin hung loosely from her jaw.

            Becks scooted closer. “Mommy, why does she look like that?”

            “Sh!” Jessie scolded. “I’m sorry,” she said to the woman. “My daughter has never seen an, um, elderly person before.”

            The woman smiled. “Well, of course. She’s, what, perhaps four?”

            “Almost,” Jessie replied.

            The woman looked into Becks’s face. “I’m old, sweetheart. That’s why I look this way.”

            “How old?” Becks asked.

            The woman laughed. “Fifty-two. I’m the second-oldest person alive. On this ship, anyway.”

            “You know someone older?” asked Becks, her brown eyes perfectly round.

            “Yes, my husband. He’s fifty-three.”

            “Wow,” said Jessie. “I didn’t know they allowed anyone older than forty to go.”

            “Well, there were a limited number of pilots to choose from, so they made an exception for him. And me.”

            Jessie sat back, awe-struck. “Your husband is a pilot? Is Captain Magoro your husband?” The woman nodded. Jessie’s hands flew to her cheeks. “Oh my gosh! I didn’t realize we were talking to the First Lady.” Jessie looked left and right. “Shouldn’t you have body guards or something?”

            Mrs. Magoro leaned back against her seat. “Sometimes it’s nice to be by myself. I enjoy riding the train around, just reading and watching the people. Sometimes when I am not expected to be anywhere, I ride it around all day.”

            “I like the train, too,” said Becks.

            “Do you? Do you like to go to the Entertainment District?”

            Becks nodded. “Yes, but Mommy and Daddy don’t take me there too much.”

            Mrs. Magoro smiled kindly. “Well, you have to do what your parents tell you to do. They have their reasons.”

            Becks leaned forward on her bench. “Does it hurt to be old?”

            Jessie rolled her eyes. “Geez, Becks. That’s not a nice question. My apologies, Mrs. Magoro.”

            The woman laughed. “It’s natural for her to be curious.” Then to Becks she said, “Sometimes, yes. But I am used to it. Growing old only hurts a little bit at a time. You have a long time before you will be old, my dear. Don’t worry about it now.”

            Jessie shifted on the bench and cleared her throat. “Mrs. Magoro? I have so many questions I would like to ask you, if you don’t mind. First, do you know who hacked into the cryo–”

            Mrs. Magoro held up her hand and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I cannot answer your questions about what happened. Either I do not know the answers, and it would be wrong for me to speculate, or I do know the answers, but it would not make you happy to know them. Please, for your own well-being, and for your daughter, live your life as it is now, not as you wish it would be.”

            Before Jessie could respond, the same male voice came through the speakers. “We are now approaching Section E: The Capitol.”

            “This is my stop,” said Mrs. Magoro. “My husband asked if I had time to meet him for lunch today. I told him I could probably fit him in.” She winked at Jessie. She looked down at the book in her hand, then held it out. “Here. Have you read it before? It’s very good.”

            Jessie tenderly took the book. “Thank you so much.” Her eyes teared up. “I read it once, a long time ago. I didn’t think I would ever get to read it again.” She hugged the book to her chest and looked into the woman’s eyes. “This means so much to me, you have no idea.”

            Mrs. Magoro smiled. “Perhaps your daughter will like it, as well.”

            The train came to a stop and the doors slid open. Mrs. Magoro stood and began to exit.

            “Wait!” Jessie cried. Mrs. Magoro turned around, a puzzled expression on her face. “Just one quick question, I promise – who would I talk to about making it rain sometime soon?”

            Mrs. Magoro stepped onto the platform. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said as the doors slid closed and the train sped away.

            “Mommy, what book did the lady give you?” Becks asked.

            Jessie looked down and read aloud. Watership Down.”

            They rode the train through the stations at Sections F and G. Jessie’s stomach was rumbling and she wished she had packed a snack for herself. It was getting close to lunchtime and she knew Becks would start complaining of hunger soon. She was contemplating bypassing Section H and returning home when the voice announced the next stop.

            “Come on,” she said and took Becks by the hand. “We’re getting off.”

            “Where?”

            “We’re going to see a part of this ship we’ve never seen before.”

            The train stopped and they disembarked onto an avenue lined with dozens of identical, window-filled skyscrapers. An embossed metal sign stretched high across the road read: Section H: Hibernation. In the far distance, Jessie could just make out what appeared to be an immense gray wall running perpendicular to the row of skyscrapers.

            A dozen people strolled down the avenue from where she stood. They were all dressed in business suits and a few were carrying briefcases. She and Becks were the only people who looked like they did not work in the area.

            “Whatever,” Jessie mumbled to herself under her breath. “It’s not like we’re not allowed to just walk down the street.” She took the stroller from under her arm and gave it a hard shake. It popped open and she sat it on the ground, then tucked her new book into the carrying compartment below the seat. “Come on, Becks, let Mommy push you for a bit.”

            To her surprise, Becks did not complain as she sat down. Jessie strapped her lap belt on and began to walk down the street. The skyscrapers on either side rose so high they left nothing but a strip of blue sky overhead. One by one, the office workers ahead of them left the avenue to enter one of the buildings until finally Jessie and Becks were alone. The only sound was the soft squeak of Jessie’s tennis shoes against the pavement. She looked down into the stroller and saw Becks’ head rolling loosely on her neck. Jessie sighed and lowered the seat back so Becks could take a nap.

            She pushed the stroller six blocks until she came to a T-intersection at a street named Cryogenic Corridor. It, too, was lined with skyscrapers, but these were windowless and they rose to monstrous heights. Harry had once told her each one contained 230 floors and held 2,000 Hibernation Chambers. There were no spaces between the buildings, so they stood like one massive, continuous wall. They stretched all the way to the horizon in either direction, gradually growing smaller and smaller until they fused together in Jessie’s eyes. There was a single door to each building facing the street, each one lacking any sort of knob or handle for entrance. Jessie had no idea how anyone was supposed to get in. Numbers hammered into each door were clearly visible from the street. The building in front of Jessie read 16,001-18,000. She turned right.

            The numbers on the doors grew smaller. 14,001-16,000. 12,001-14,000. A few blocks later, she stopped walking and stared at the door in front of her. 8,001-10,000. This was it. She was here.

            Jessie knew that this building, and all the other buildings beyond, were standing empty. Somewhere in this skyscraper, on one of its floors, were three Hibernation Chambers that would never be used. Each would be labeled with the name of a member of her family. What would it have been like? she wondered. To go to sleep one day, then wake up and be there? To see a real sun again? To meet new neighbors? What would it have been like to be somewhere where there wasn’t anyone else around for miles?

            Jessie stared up at the skyscraper until her neck hurt and she had to look back down. Becks was stirring. “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

            “Okay, baby,” she sighed. “We can go get lunch.”

            Jessie spun the stroller around and walked back up the corridor. She hadn’t made it far when a door to one of the buildings opened and a man came out.

            “Hey there, Jessie! What are you doing here?”

            Jessie jumped. “Kristoff! I didn’t think I would run into anyone here.”

            Kristoff laughed. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Are you waiting for Harry?”

            Jessie slowly nodded. “Y-Yes. He, um, asked if I would like to meet him for lunch. So I’m just waiting for him.”

            Kristoff held the door open behind him. “Well go on up. He’s on the 98th floor, just checking on a few of the chambers.”

            Jessie smiled and pushed the stroller through the door. “Thanks.”

            “Sure! Hey, you guys should come over for dinner soon. Cici would love to show off her spaghetti.”

            “Sounds great, Kristoff. We’ll do that.”

Jessie steered the stroller through the hallway, the sound of her squeaky shoes echoing all around. It was cold in the lobby and the air tasted metallic.

            “Mommy?” Becks asked. “I said I’m hungry.”

            “I know. We won’t be long. I just want to see something.”

            “Daddy?”

            “Maybe, baby.”

            Jessie found the elevator and pushed Becks inside. “Floor 98,” she said aloud. “No wait! Floor 99.” The doors slid shut and the elevator began to rise. The air pressure changed and Jessie’s ears popped.

            “Ow!” Becks wailed.

            “Tug on your ears like this and swallow a few times,” Jessie said and demonstrated.

            Becks copied her movements, then settled grumpily back into her seat. “I’m still hungry.”

            The elevator slid to a gentle stop and the doors opened onto a long hallway framed with glass windows. Jessie slowly stepped out. “Wow.”

            Through the windows, she could see dozens of Hibernation Chambers, lined up next to each other like office cubicles. Each chamber looked like an operating room, sterile and white, and was filled with machines. From chamber to chamber, they were identical. Four metal boxes, each reporting vital statistics, dates, times, or temperatures. Three of the boxes were connected by tubes to the fourth, and largest, box. A coffin-sized box, specifically built for the size of the human who lay inside. A name and serial number identified the contents.

            “Mommy, where are we?”

            “This is…,” Jessie started and trailed off.

            “Mommy?”

            Jessie took her hands off the stroller and began to slowly walk down the hallway, reading one name after another. “So many people,” she whispered to herself. “So many people, and you all get to sleep through it. Do you know how lucky you are? You’ll wake up in 80 years and nothing will have changed for you. You’ll just wake up and walk straight into your new home.” She snapped her fingers. “Like that! Won’t give a second thought to your Caretakers, will you? Little Sleeping Beauties.”

            “Can we go, Mommy?” Becks pleaded.

            But Jessie did not hear her.

“Who was it?” she demanded, crossing the hall and pressing her face up against the glass. “Which one of you decided you couldn’t bear to age like the rest of us? Couldn’t stand the thought of taking your turn as Caretaker?” Her fists balled and her biceps ached to punch something. “Which one of you decided your life was more important than mine?”

“Mommy!”

“Which one of you decided it was okay to send the rest of us to our graves on this ship?” Tears streamed down her face and her voiced cracked as she raged. “I wouldn’t have come if I had known I was never going to get off! I don’t want to die here! My kid is going to die here, too! Did you think about that, you piece of shit? She’ll never know anything except the inside of this prison!”

“Mommy! You’re scaring me!”

“Do you even have kids?” Jessie screamed to the metal boxes. “Or is it just you, sleeping in one of these rooms, eternally 21? It’s not fair, goddamnit! I want to sleep under a real sky again! I want to touch something that no one else has ever touched! I want to be buried in real dirt! I don’t want to be cremated and blown into outer space! I DON’T WANT TO DIE ON THIS FUCKING SHIP!” She screamed with all the air in her lungs and beat her fists against the glass. The hallway was immediately filled with a blaring siren and flashing red lights.

Becks’s hands flew to her ears and she burst into tears. “Mommy! Make it stop!”

Jessie caught a glimpse of her horrified reflection in the window, then she turned and ran back to the stroller. Tears and snot poured down Becks’s face.

“I’m sorry,” Jessie sputtered and shoved the stroller before her as she raced back to the elevator. She jammed the down button repeatedly, but the doors did not open.

She cursed. “Come on! Come on!”

            “Mommy, I want to go!”

            “I know, baby,” she shouted over the siren, “but it isn’t coming. I’m sorry!”

            Jessie jerked her head around, looking for another escape. But before she could find one, the elevator doors opened and two men dressed in Security uniforms shoved Tasers in her face.

            Jessie jumped back and held her hands up. “No!” she screamed.

            “Whoa, hey, that’s my wife!” someone said.

            Jessie dropped her arms. Harry was pushing his way past the guards. “I’m sorry!” she cried. “I didn’t mean to.”

            Harry bent down and rescued a flailing Becks from the stroller. She buried her face in his neck and wrapped her arms and legs around him like she would never let go. Jessie heart ached and she longed to reach out and take her daughter and provide the comfort she was seeking, but she knew it was too late. Harry stared at her incredulously. “What are you doing here?”

            Jessie started to answer, but he shook his head. “Tell me downstairs. It’s too loud in here.” He walked back into the elevator, followed by the two guards, who had put away their Tasers but were still eyeing Jessie suspiciously. Jessie kept her eyes on the floor as she pushed the stroller in front of her, and didn’t look up again until the doors opened and they were delivered to the lobby.

            “I’ll have to fill out an Incident Report,” Harry grumbled. “Why don’t you guys come with me to the office? You can tell me what happened.”

            Dinner was eaten in silence that night. When Harry came to bed, he pulled Jessie into his arms and said, “Maybe I could ask for a transfer to a different part of the ship. A different neighborhood. Would that help?”

            “Maybe,” she replied.

            Harry and Becks walked down to the Restaurant District the next morning. They brought back fresh doughnuts and a cup of coffee for Jessie.

            She was still in bed, gazing out the single window in their apartment, when Becks climbed up beside her, spilling a few drops of coffee on the sheets. She was wearing yellow boots. “Daddy said to let you sleep, but I brought you your drink.”

            Jessie smiled and pulled her daughter onto her lap. “Mmm, you smell like rain.”

            “That’s because it’s raining outside.”

            “I know. How about we stay in bed and read today? Would you like that?”

            “Can I have another doughnut?”

            “Sure.”

            “Can I eat it in your bed?”

            “Yes.”

            “Mommy?”

            “Hm?”

            “When are we going to be there?”

            “Where?”

            “Our new home.”

            Jessie sighed and ran her hand over her daughter’s soft curls. “One day, baby. One day.”