Here’s the fifth and final part of my sci-fi satire The Shopper Awakes. This story’s from my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories, available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook. If you haven’t already, read parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Rita stood in the ruins of the coliseum where once upon a distant time she watched basketball and rock concerts. The skyboxes where she once noshed on cocktail shrimp and sipped martinis were now day-cares, and the dance floor and court were swelling with cheaply dressed people holding books where they should hold cell-phones, and had paunches where they should have had tight abs. The present was a whirligig version of the status quo she knew and loved and there was nothing she could do about it except await some manner of elucidation from today’s symposium, which at the very least was executed in the Greek fashion with wine passed around unreservedly, but it was as common and cheap and sanguine as everything else here.
Martha had brought her here to join the other wards of the state and lost youths in need of proper educations. She would be housed and catered to and respectfully mothered to some degree (countless degrees removed from what she was used to), until she either completed her education, found an occupation, or started a family, all of which weren’t by any estimation part of her five-year plan, or ten year for that matter. Education seemed the least strenuous of the three, but she wondered just how many hours she’d have to go through the motions. She asked Martha, “But when does education end?”
Martha laughed in an unintentionally deprecating way, “Never thought of that, really. Until true genius or death comes I suppose.”
With that, Martha smartly left, kindly vowing to visit on occasion. Rita meanwhile sulked and sunk into abject self-pity as the day’s lectures began.
The lectures were largely mandarin to her, full of references she couldn’t register, names she couldn’t place, and events that had no historical significance to her. There were a fair share of factoids from her time in the lecture that flew by like strange birds–remarks about the ghastliness of 20th century health-care plans, the pope and the Vietnam War. Overall, the idea was impressed upon her that she was a stranger in a strange land, or more precisely, a stranger in a strange time, a quite prominent symptom in the post-millennial period, even to those who weren’t time travelers. I myself was at the academy that day as a student, and took brief notice of her due to the gawkiness of her narrow hips and prominent bust and the unusualness of her dress. Bright and silky attire in this day and age? I was too absorbed in the day’s lecture to do anything more than stare for a moment and turn away.
It must’ve been only a few moments after I dismissed her as some Crazy Jane-type character that Rita did something truly remarkable for someone with her upbringing. Shorn of her 21st century gadgetry and gizmos, Rita had to take it upon herself to be resourceful. No longer could she simply resort to the internet for bits and pieces of information, she would have to invest time in saving her life. The academy was well stocked with books, more precious than gold and silk.
To give her some credit, books in her time were taboo, just as intellectuals were of the untouchable caste, so we shouldn’t be too hasty in mocking her when I point out here that she didn’t know what the Dewey decimal system was, and that she searched alphabetically by title. It was an exhausting process at first, considering she had to learn first hand the lay of the land without a guide or mentor, but our heroine was nothing if not tenacious, and was able, through chance or by grace, to locate a book detailing the events of the last century, i.e. what should have been her time.
As she sat down at a creaky desk in a poorly furnished study hall, Rita heaved a fitful sigh of resignation, gazing out at the shabby people in this shabby city, thinking, with some residual anger misdirected at her father, long dead, ‘this is what happens when you date smart people.’
Sarcastic or otherwise, there was some truth in her statement. After all, the world as we knew it was the product of people seeking intelligence in bedmates. Smart people eventually produce smart children, and smart children produce a smart society. If prettiness and vanity fall by the wayside, so be it. Excuse me for overlooking cultural relativity.
Perhaps for the first time, Rita read a book without being told to do so, without an enquiring eye hovering over her shoulder, without a reward in mind, and without the threat of flunking looming in her thoughts. It was through her own efforts that she learned why books had become so important. She read of how so many were burned or discarded after the war, and how the few that remained, the ones that were discovered in abandoned buildings or awaiting destruction at landfills, were cherished by the succeeding generations who had so presciently realized that some level of intelligence and talent were necessary for human life even in the most luxurious or decadent of times. That the world didn’t turn on entertainment and self-absorption alone was a lesson learned too late by many of her generation, but time’s caprice at this instance offered her a second chance, and I’d like to say our heroine seized it.
There are two schools of thought amongst my contemporaries who are intrigued by Rita’s curious life. Some will take an ironic and pessimistic approach, owing especially to the story circulating that Rita, on that day, in that study hall, was seen burying her head in her hands and exclaiming in a tone of disgust “What a terrible, terrible future this is.” The statement’s sheer oddness ensured it stuck out in the witnesses’ memories.
I though prefer to take a different approach, because later that day, in that selfsame study hall, I remember noticing in the dustbin a pair of strange shoes; bright and colorful things with pronged heels. Of course, I knew it was customary to reuse old clothes and materials as efficiently as possible, but I thought they looked too uncomfortable for anyone to wear and left them where they’d been abandoned. Sometimes I look back and think that maybe I should have extracted them and preserved them; they must have had some historical significance. At sentimental times though, I find myself dreamily imagining Rita walking out into the new world, steadfastly and barefoot.
Remember, if you want to own The Shopper Awakes and read 7 other stories by me, purchase The Madness of Art: Stories.
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