Saturday, March 12, 2016

"The High-Rise"

I had been doing well with my New Year's resolution of writing one blog post a week until last week. It was a short-story week, and I was completely dry on inspiration. So, I've had a week to think about this piece, and two nights to write it down. It's setting is the "World of Tomorrow" from the 1950's and 60's: push-button homes, atomic everything, and, of course the ever-present threat of Communists.

I hope you enjoy "The High-Rise".

A Firestone ad, circa 1950s, and part of the inspiration for the setting of this story. 

As the bell rang to end the last class of the day, Bill gathered his books and shoved them into his backpack. The number of books, binders, and pencils fit geometrically perfectly inside, as they were designed to do. The leather clasp fastened perfectly, and he slung the bag's strap over his shoulder before rushing from the classroom.

In the hallway he blended in with the sea of others wearing school uniforms; black pants, white shirts, grey ties. Even the girls wore the outfit, although their pants were replaced with long black skirts and tall black socks. Bill looked desperately through the crowd for his older sister, but it was hopeless; even with her head of unnaturally red hair, she was impossible to make out among the hundreds of students headed for the atrium at the end of the school day.

Bill was roughly bumped from behind, and he staggered forward into someone else. An older boy, one that Bill had never seen before, turned and glared at him. "Watch it, weasel," the older boy sneered. He roughly planted the palm of his hand into Bill's chest. Bill cried out in alarm and staggered again, but this time he luckily didn't crash into anybody.

Lowering his head so as to not attract further attention to himself, Bill moved toward the atrium.

Every floor of the High-Rise had an atrium, and every atrium had thirty lifts, arranged along two long walls. Students were being ushered into lines for the lifts that were allocated to the floors where their families lived. Bill and his family lived on the 245th floor. He allowed the Usher, a man in a dark red velvet jacket covered in copper buttons, to point him to the correct lift. He didn't see his sister, Marjorie, in line yet, but she was probably just running late or something. It wouldn't be the first time.

There were roughly thirty people in line ahead of Bill, so he crossed his arms across his chest and waited. Twenty minutes later, another Usher prodded Bill into an already-stuffed lift. He was the last person on, so when the door closed it nearly caught the tip of his nose between the two chrome plates. The lift hummed up the shaft. After another fifteen minutes of stepping aside to let others out, Bill finally left the lift and stepped into 245's atrium. Architecturally, it was identical to every other atrium in the High-Rise, but Bill swore there was something comforting and familiar about his home floor. He stepped past the lines of ushered people waiting and toward the apartments.

Apartment 10H was the Jones household. Bill had already taken his huge, intricate steel key from his backpack and was ready to unlock the door, but when he rounded the corner in the hallway he found the door open and his father struggling with a large, brown box.

"Dad?" Bill asked, approaching. "What're you doing?"

Dad looked over the box and smiled at his son. Despite sweating from exertion from wrestling with the box, he managed to clutch his pipe between his teeth. "Good afternoon, champ. Say, give your old man a hand with this box, will you? The new aerial came today, and I'd like to get it hooked up before  the afternoon programs come on!"

 Bill's heart leapt. He had been looking forward to the new aerial for months, since his dad had first put in the order for it. Dropping his bag in the hallway, Bill shoved and pushed with his father until the box was finally inside their apartment.

"You boys are going to spend the whole night putting that thing together!" Bill heard his mother say as they entered. As usual, she was in the kitchen. Bill heard (and smelled) something cooking in their atomic-powered oven.

"Good afternoon, Mister Jones," said their Butlertron in its monotone, pre-programmed voice. It rolled forward from the rear of the apartment. "Can I take your coat and get you the afternoon paper?"

"I'd like that, Botsworth," Dad  replied, settling into his easy chair. "And afternoon scotch, while you're at it."

As the Butlertron's vice-like hands carefully removed Dad's coat, Bill turned his attention back to his mother. "We won't spend the whole night putting it together!" Bill exclaimed. "We're going to get it working by dinner. That way we call all watch Science Fiction Fantasy while we eat. And it's going to be in color!" 

Mom laughed, and finally emerged from the kitchen. She was stirring something with a completely silent chrome hand-mixed. "Color. On the television. What'll they think of next?"

"Seriously, June," Dad put it. "This newest model is supposed to show the pictures in full color!"

"I'll believe it when I see it," Mom replied. "But we're not going to watch it while we eat. We're still civilized, and we're going to eat dinner as a family like everyone else in the country."

"Speaking of family, I didn't see Marjorie at the lift," Bill replied. He'd retrieved his pack from the hall and had emptied his mandated homework on the coffee table.

"She said she would be going to the fitness level after school today," Mom replied. "She's trying out for the tennis team and wanted to get in some practice."

The fitness level was the 103rd floor. Bill's physical education class met there twice a week. It was a huge, high-ceilinged floor, full of tennis courts and running machines and saunas and other things Bill hadn't yet had a chance to try out.

"Could you do your old man a favor, sport, and take down the old aerial before you start on your homework?" Dad asked. Botsworth had just brought Dad a small glass of amber liquid with two ice cubes resting in it, and Dad has just traded his brown loafers for his slippers.

Brian nodded and set aside his homework. He crossed the living room to the balcony. Sliding the door open, he stepped out into the warm, humid air of late summer. The sun was still high in the bright blue afternoon sky, and a few pearly clouds drifted lazily across the horizon. Miles away, the other High-Rises looked so much smaller than their hundred upon hundreds of floors would suggest, but Bill knew it was simply a trick of his eyes and the buildings' massive scale. Far below, Bill could see the network of roads than connected the High-Rises and the Cultivated Lands than surrounded them. Far in the distance the road disappeared at the horizon, toward more Cultivated Lands and Untamed Wilds and, he had been told, even more High-Rises.

"I can't wait until I can drive on the ground," Bill said to himself, momentarily lost in the scenery.

Apparently Botsworth had heard his musings, because the Butlertron rolled onto the balcony beside him. "You must first complete a minimum of four years in the Army after your education is finished to be granted the terrifying privilege of leaving the High-Rise," he droned.

"I know, Botsworth," Bill replied.

"Answer acknowledged," Botsworth affirmed. "Additional information available: you must consent to at least two years active duty fighting the Red Menace to be eligible to drive on the ground."

Botsworth went through the diatribe every time Bill found himself thinking aloud. "I know, Botsworth. Now help me unscrew this old aerial."

"Very good, young master."

A screwdriver emerged from Bosworth's chest. Bill took it and began loosening the bolts that held the aerial to the railing. "Botsworth, tell me the stories about the Red Wars again. Please."

Botsworth continued to produce different tools as Bill needed them, all the while telling Bill the story of how the Reds had wanted to take everything that Bill and his family held dear. Parts of the story didn't make sense to Bill, but it didn't scare him like it used to. He pictured himself in the Army, fighting Reds like his father had done, and one day being a hero that everyone in his High-Rise - no, every High-Rise - looked up to. He pictured himself seeing the Cultivated Lands with his own eyes, and maybe even exploring the Untamed Wilds, finding a place the Reds hadn't yet polluted with their ideologies and wars.

But new aerial would come first. Science Fiction Fantasy was his favorite show, and merely the though of watching it in color was enough to give him goose bumps.