Life Lessons, or You Aren't Getting Younger Every Day
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1st Lesson

When you were quite a good deal younger, one of the bluebottle flies which came into the house in the summer and beat themselves against the windows got into your room. You caught it and held it in your hands before letting it go to fly away again. You hoped it would stay and be your friend but it didn’t, even though you could still hear its occasional taps against the glass. As children your age were wont to do, you sulked at the slight and rolled over and stuffed your hands in your ears.

You found its body a few days later, curled up in the well of your windowsill, only a few inches away from the little hole in the screen that would have let it go free. Even though some part of you knew that’s not what happened, you feel guilty about the fly dying, like you were the one who killed it and not a hot sun and no food or water or air.

You could have had a little funeral, but you couldn’t reach the fly in the well of the window. When you asked your mother to get it out for you, and explained why, she scolded you and said that flies were dirty. When you were older still, you learned that the fly would have died in a matter of days, anyway.

That’s just how flies were.

2nd Lesson

You’re older now, in school, and you’ve just hit back for the first time in your life. Despite all the years of reading books with spunky protagonists learning to stand up for themselves, you do not in fact feel vindicated. The blood on her face from her nose and the split lip makes you feel a little ill. Instead of crowing in joy you burst into tears and try to kneel beside her, so you can push the sleeve of your shirt into her face and make it stop.

She recoils and shoves you so hard into the dirt you hit your face on a rock and knock out one of your milk teeth, and then you’re both crying. There’s a humming in your head from pain and dizziness at seeing blood and perhaps a bit of indignation.

It sounds a little like a bluebottle, beating itself against the window.

3rd Lesson

You never do finish school – you have to drop out so you can take care of your mum. You’re old enough to do that when she gets sick, and there’s nobody else around to help her, so you do. For a while in between hospital trips and holding a vomit pan and looking up palliative care and the success rates of double mastectomies, you try to study out of your old textbooks. It’s a hectic mishmash of biology and calculus and history where you can actually get past World War 2, forgetting which problem you were on by the time you come back from holding the bedpan.

It doesn’t work, but you keep on trying until she’s dying. Then you give up. You give up on a lot of things while you’re sitting in that bed, watching her try to breathe. There’s an impulse welling up in you to take the pillow and shove it over her face, just to stop that horrible rattling noise. You almost do it once, twice, then three times.

You don’t, and she takes an extra five days after the doctor said she would to die, five days of piss and shit and blood and sobbing until they drug her so deep she doesn’t even remember your name. Who needs to be careful with morphine when you’re going to die anyway? She asks, eyes wide and earnest in her last lucid moment. After she’s gone, you go out and sit on the curb of the hospital and cry so hard you give yourself a nosebleed.

Then with the coppery taste still filling your mouth, old pennies and missing teeth, you go to take care of your mother’s dead body.

4th Lesson

You are older still, although not by too much, and you have the man who almost hit you with his car to thank for that. He thought you were a particularly soggy clump of rubbish in the gutter. Instead you turned out to be an mostly incoherent drunk. He still scooped you up and got you home and had absolutely nothing to do with what happened next.

The man who showed up on your doorstep with his polite smile and offered you a job as a janitor was so normal you can’t remember his face. He could have been everyone you’d ever seen in a background before, a crowd shot in a television show or someone going by you in a busy street.

Mr. Jones?

Mr. Smith?

Does it matter?

He laughs and waves your question away when you ask him who the fuck would want someone as a janitor so bad that they’d be willing to send someone else out to a front door. I oversee all D-Class personnel requisitions, he replies. It doesn’t matter. But the pay is good, and you can drink on your off days all you want. You’d be living on-site, but the Foundation treats those well who treat it well.

You turn and look back over your shoulder, considering the grimy hallway still soaked in muck from when you stumbled in last night. You consider the itchy corporate branded work shirt you’re wearing, the one that always creeps up under your armpits. You consider the pounding hangover you’ve got, and the way something about the man’s horribly normal face suggests that saying no might not be an option. You think good and long and hard about your life and how you’re living it now.

Okay, you say. Okay.

And you try not to think of your mother.

Graduation Day

You are much much older, and your knees are sore, although that’s the last of your worries on any given day. You don't even have time to consider all the different ways you’ve ever see people die, and to be honest, it didn’t even matter anymore. Blood and shit because they blinked, alright, whatever. It was the kind of hyperviolence you saw on movies and television and wasn’t it easier to just keep your head down and mop?

You don’t get to know half of the things that go on here, at Site-19. You’re not a scientist in a white labcoat, you’re the person who scrubs up the piss from the tile when a junior researcher sees something he wasn’t prepared for. You’re definitely not one of the skips kept behind locked doors- that’s what all the people like you call them, skips. There’s one of your fellow D-Class who keeps calling them scips, like what you do to a drink you want to savor, and he gets screamed down with derision in the mess hall every night. They’re horrible, wonderful things and if you and everyone else here didn’t do your part to keep them contained the whole world might end.

(That’s what they call an XK. You listen more than you probably should.)

You’ve lasted longer than most. Is it because they want you alive? Is it luck? Who the fuck knows? It doesn't matter to you. You're just living here.

But in a way, being confined has given you an appreciation for the smaller things. You get three fucking meals a day (of Soylent Green-esque pap that you're not entirely sure isn't made of people, because wouldn't that be fitting) and a place to rest (small, steel-frame, in a room full of snoring assholes) and your job isn't too hard. (Mopping. Sometimes it's piss, sometimes blood, sometimes it's chunks of what used to be a member of those fancy on site task forces before a skip got them. Still better than working at Burger King.)

You've finally found a place. Not your place, it's a little too hostile for that, but it's a place with room for you in it and that's good enough.

You roll over and with the little metal screw you took from the mop, you scratch a line on the wall. It's the best way you've found to keep up with the time of the year, and the overseers don't seem to mind it. You scratch another line on the wall. You've gotten one year older, give or take. You're not dead yet.

Happy Birthday.


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