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She told her door to lock and started down the long hallway to the public lift. It was cheap to live this far down. The temperature was a constant sixty five degrees keeping heating and cooling costs to a minimum. It always felt cold and damp to Robyn but she shrugged it off knowing that better times were on their way. Besides, it was all she could afford on her secretary’s salary. Maybe when she was a doctor’s wife they could afford an apartment above ground. If they were lucky, they’d have a real window and a spot of sunlight. The only sun she saw these days was at the public park a half an hour’s lift ride to the roof.
She took the lift a few stops to the subway station. It was a relatively quiet Sunday morning. In comparison to the weekday hordes, the few hundred people on the platform made the station seem deserted. The train arrived silently, traveling on a magnetic cushion. The doors opened with a sigh. Of course there were no seats, there hadn’t been for decades. A car could carry a hundred more people without seats and it kept the homeless from sleeping in the cars. Also it wasn’t egalitarian. Why should a lucky few have seats while the rest looked on in envy?
She was early. Her lunch date with Rob was not for a few hours. She was going to visit her father, something she often did on Sunday mornings. Her father, Winfred Linsy, was well in his eighties. He had Robyn late in life and, after mother died in a lift accident when she was six, raised her single handed. A snapped cable, a failed safety, a corrupt inspector—the same old story.
The old man lived in a state funded home for the aged. He had a tiny apartment, his walls filled with photographs. His was the last generation to have easy access to the remnants of the natural world, to actually see it in the flesh so to speak. He worked for a magazine that documented the vanishing forests. These days the only wildlife Robyn knew were houseplants and cockroaches. There were plenty of photographs and videos of the lost natural world and they were everywhere, projected on every surface. Every apartment had window-screens in place of real windows and all those screens showed gorgeous vistas of a world long gone.
It had taken centuries to get to this point. It was the natural evolution of urban sprawl and unchecked population growth. Only man’s ingenuity and adaptability had kept humanity going but the price was continent sized buildings a half a mile high and almost as deep. Ever so gradually the natural world had been replaced by endless city. Food was grown in tissue farms, rainwater was collected, sewage and raw materials re-cycled. In many ways the air and water were cleaner than ever. There were, unfortunately, no birds or fish to appreciate it.
Of course there were still a few wild places. The poles were still unpolluted and there were a few national parks on every continent but they were so remote and expensive to visit that for people like Robyn it was a distant dream.
She got off at her stop and took a long belt ride to another lift. She walked through a shopping area made to look like something from the 90’s. It was an attempt to give some personality to the mind numbing sameness of modern life. The food and clothing was no different than that available in any other store. Homogenization was the price for living so densely. Everything was standardized. Except for a choice of colors, everyone wore the same two styles of tunics, ate the same cultures and saw the same scenes on their screens. It might not be a glamorous world, but except for a few fanatics, it was a peaceful one. War was impossible, there was only existence.
A shop she liked in this mart sold curiosities, relics from bygone days. Strange rusty tools and kitchen utensils whose use could only be guessed at. There were things called books and quaint clothing made from fibers that no longer existed. The shop was almost always empty. People tended to avoid the past.
Robyn arrived at her father’s building, she signed in at the front desk and took an elevator down ten floors. These state run facilities were depressing in the extreme. Long monotonous corridors covered in drab dirty carpet. There was an aid station on each floor but in all the time she'd visited she had yet to see anyone there. She had to pay a private aid from her own meager salary to look in on her father.
“Hi dad,” Robyn called as she entered. The old man was there fast asleep in his chair. The entertainment screen was chattering away unheeded. Robyn was always reluctant to wake her father. He needed his sleep. Reva, the paid aid, came in. She was carrying a bag of clean laundry. “Hi Reva. I didn’t think you came in on Sundays.”
“I don’t. I just wanted to drop off his laundry. He’s almost out of underpants.”
“I like to hear beautiful women discussing my underwear,” a tired voice chimed in.
“I’ll just put these clean clothes away,” said Reva ignoring the old man’s comments. Reva bustled around with doors and drawers while Robyn kissed her father.
“I wasn’t going to wake you,” Robyn said.
“I told you a hundred times to go ahead and wake me up when you come. I have plenty of time to sleep when you’re not here or when I’m dead.”
“I don’t like to hear that kind of talk Mr. Linsy,” Reva said slamming a drawer.
The old man made a face at Reva and looked lovingly at his daughter. “So what’s the latest with that reluctant suitor of yours?”
“Nothing’s new, dad. I’m meeting him for lunch today. He booked a nice table above ground.”
“You think he’s going to ask you the big question?” Reva asked.
“I can only hope,” replied Robyn.
“Well if it was me,” Reva struck a pose with her hands on her hips, “I’d tell the boy that the train is leaving the station and if he don’t jump on he’s missing the boat.”
“She’s got a point,” the old man said.
Robyn was tired of having the same conversation with everyone she knew. Rob would make his move when he was ready. There was much to be said for financial security. To change the subject Robyn took one of the beautiful photographs off the wall and put it on her father’s lap. It was a stunning close up of an orange and black butterfly on a thistle.
“Do you remember taking this one?” she asked him. This was a familiar game they played. It helped the old man’s memory and sometimes the stories they provoked were a joy to hear.
“I remember that one very well. That was the day I met your mother. We were in the last piece of wild land in Canada. There wasn’t much left of it by then, maybe ten acres of scrubby ground. They were about to pave it over in a few days. There was nothing much left, no animals, no birds, no trees, just a weedy patch of earth. I was there to document the passing of one of the last bits of open land in North America and I was having a hard time finding anything worth shooting. I thought I was alone but I wasn’t. Somewhere in the distance I saw a young woman wandering around with a guide book and a magnifying glass. She looked so beautiful and so sad. Tears were just streaming down her face.
“I approached her to see if I could help. I introduced myself and we talked. She was looking for any signs of life in that wasteland. There were some ants on some leaves and a few forlorn looking caterpillars but that was about it for animal life. Then out of nowhere this beautiful butterfly lands on this flower. It was amazing, joyous. I snapped the picture. Two months later we were married.
“Now I bet I’ve told you that story a thousand times before.”
“I never get tired of hearing it, dad, it’s a beautiful story.” Robyn put the photograph back on the wall and checked the time. She kissed her father goodbye and said goodbye to Reva. She had to hurry to make her date.
Rob was waiting for her when she arrived. He looked his handsome, well groomed self but seemed annoyed that she was ten minutes late. He drummed his fingers and shifted uneasily in his chair. Robyn kissed him and apologized for being late. “The lift was jammed and I got on a local instead of an express. It stopped on every level.”
“Well here you are. Are you hungry? This is supposed to be a good restaurant.”
Robyn looked around. The room was decorated in a desert theme. A palm treed oasis bar in the center and a perimeter screen showing sand dunes and a camel caravan crossing the trackless wastes. The waiter brought menus. She ordered the mock swordfish Rob ordered the mock chicken. They made small talk until the food came. It was all the same food everywhere, only the sauces and spices changed from dish to dish. They ate in silence until the dishes were cleared away.
Rob finally looked up and said he had something important to say. Robyn felt herself tense. “I don’t know how to say this, Robyn. You know I love you but...”
Robyn heard that but and not much after that. Her face burned and her chest tightened up so that it was hard to breathe. Rob nattered on about another woman and being friends. Robyn wanted to turn the table over and kick him in his lying teeth.
“I’m sorry, Robyn,” he concluded. Sorry she thought. He’s sorry. He’s not the one who wasted six years waiting. She stood up and threw her napkin in his face and ran to the ladies room where she threw up her expensive meal.
She took the express lift down and down. Convulsed by hurt and rage she thought she was going to die. She got off at a random stop and began to walk. She had no idea where she was but she found a public space and sat on a bench. The screens here were showing endless acres of lawn and blue sky. She sat and wondered what she was supposed to do now. She didn’t have much of an independent life. She’d let her friends drift away. Their social circle consisted mostly of his med-school chums. She had her job and the money she saved. She was going to use that money to help him set up his practice.
She began to walk again. She came to another shopping area. This one had an oriental theme. There was the usual mixture of shops and restaurants selling the usual stuff. This particular mart had a shop with several large nature photographs in its window. She went over to have a look. The shop was a travel agency. There wasn’t much of a travel industry anymore. Travel was expensive. The rooftop resorts were the only places people like her could afford. This agency offered safari tours to the last remaining wild places, the poles, a few islands in the Pacific and the few remaining national parks, a couple on each continent. It cost a fortune to visit these remote places but there were always those wealthy enough to afford it.
On a whim, she went inside and watched a video-brochure about the National Park in the Carolinas. At a thousand acres it was larger than most. It had a real forest, a pond and some of the last remaining wild birds in the world. Suddenly she knew that that was what she wanted to do. She wanted to be able to tell her children and her father that she’d seen and touched something real—a tree, a duck, a wildflower. Somehow, in this, the blackest of all days, it made some sort of sense. The next thing she knew she was sitting across from the agent and booking the trip. The price of the excursion took all of her savings but she didn’t care. She went home and packed a bag and caught the next available flight. Eight hours later she was in a room with a real window looking out on real trees.
Austin, the guide, lead his small band of hikers along the trail. “These are the last remnants of the great Eastern forest. At one time it stretched from Canada to Mexico. If you look in this direction, you can almost image how it looked not to see any buildings.”
Most of the people on the tour had never been outside at ground level before. It was both strange and unfamiliar. The whole place seemed alive with insects and plants. They’d already seen a squirrel and one fellow swore he’d seen a bird off in the distance but Robyn missed it. Spotting a bird was the real prize of the expedition. Austin led them to a clearing and had them sit quietly. “Make yourselves comfortable,” he said, “maybe we’ll get lucky.” Robyn sat with her back to a great huge ponderosa pine and watched the clearing. Her senses were alive with the smells of the big pine tree and the colors of the wild flowers. She never felt more alive. She looked around at her fellow travelers. They were all excited to be there. A man sitting beside her gave her a smile and Robyn smiled back.
Without any warning, there it was. A small bird with a red breast landed in the clearing and hopped about looking for food. Everyone held their breath. It was a robin, one of the rarest birds in the world. Her namesake. A beautiful creature and a survivor. The man next to her grabbed her hand and squeezed. Robyn squeezed back. She knew she was going to be alright.
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