by Nelly Shulman
The scarlet neon signs over the rain-sodden entrance to the cellar shop blinked in the heavy cloud of smog. Something moved in the corner, next to the overflowing rubbish bins of rusty metal. Stopping, Sophia waited for whatever it was to appear again.
Cold droplets of water tickled the back of her neck. The filthy backyard was deserted, but one always had to be cautious. Something sharp scraped the metal again. The teeth gleamed in wet darkness. The child hissed something unintelligible. Many of them in such areas could not speak, reverting to grunting and gesturing. Her father would have said that human civilization is going backward.
Nobody would have noticed this in the central regions of the planet, where the sky towers surrounded the endless rows of white production plants, where people shopped using their identity bracelets and vacationed on the picture-perfect beaches.
The Centrals did not venture in the places like one she had found herself in, following the seemingly innocuous message delivered a couple of days ago to her bracelet. The mail was encrypted and relatively safe, but she still disabled the gadget, having learned the procedure from her father.
She had only twenty-four hours. After that, the cyber law enforcement unit monitoring her quarters was bound to notice the absence of signals.
The child was still looking at her cautiously. Sophia decided to try her luck with a local language, taught to her, as seven others, all extant, by her father. Her voice was soothing, calm.
The child, clinging to the bin, suddenly muttered, “Mama.” A scrawny woman, appearing from the darkness, momentarily snatched either a boy or a girl. The dirty hair and the deformed feet of the baby could have belonged to both.
Deftly climbing over the wire fence, the woman and her offspring disappeared into the wall of pounding rain. The downpour became stronger.
The Central weather has always been tightly controlled. Here in the Nether, the climate was messed up from times immemorial. Nobody cared about local people. As far as The Center was concerned, they could all drop dead.
Hesitating briefly on the threshold, Sophia stepped into the misty shadows of the shop.
The message instructed her to ask for the Monsignor. Sophia remembered the obsolete church title from the books she had read as a child. She suspected her father was one of the few Central people in possession of the paper books, deliciously cracking in her fingers, fragile as a butterfly’s wing. Sophia has seen the butterflies only once, on the school trip to The Dome, the nature reserve where The Center preserved the species once populating the Earth.
Some trees and bushes were growing in The Center, cloned in the same facility as the obligatory home plants, golden retrievers, and tabby cats. These were available to order with an expedited delivery after obtaining enough social credits to get approved for a plant or a pet. The partners also needed pre-approval, but they at least did not look like being cloned alongside anything else alive.
Sophia found herself in the most peculiar space. The room was unlike any shop she had seen in The Center. The establishments on the carefully rebuild historic streets sold just some trinkets, but the experience of entering the actual shop was thrilling enough for the tourists.
The ancient crucifix adorned the brick wall over the sagging black velvet sofa. Sophia has seen similar crosses in her father’s books. She had no idea what Dad was engaged in and why he was allowed to keep the library.
The universities were gone, replaced by virtual professional development courses. The jobs were performed in the white offices or on the gleaming factory floors, where the workers made generic unisex clothing or the two models of private gliders. The family model was also a sham. The babies, grown in the machines, were given to the parents to rear only after birth and taken away again when they reached five years of age.
The sofa pleasantly creaked under Sophia and she has unexpectedly thought about her mother, whom she had never met.
Due to the fear of over-population, it was permitted to have only one child. Even to receive that permission was excruciatingly difficult. Children were discouraged from visiting their parents and very few couples stuck together.
Sophia’s father never mentioned the woman, who might have given her a slightly crooked nose or the mane of red hair. The eyes of greenish steel Sophia inherited from her Dad, who disappeared without a trace ten years ago.
The message insisted that Monsignor knows something about her father’s fate.
The strange but alluring smell penetrated the room, mixing with a more familiar scent. Sophia recognized the whiff of the forbidden substance sometimes smuggled to the Center. Those caught in possession of the dried brown leaves were exiled to the Nether, where they were as good as dead.
Sophia broke the Wall defenses with the code sent her in the same message. The coordinates led her to the outskirts of the sprawling mass of crumbling buildings, barely resembling a city. Air traffic here was non-existent.
She was not worried about the local law enforcement since the Nether did not have any, but she had to return to The Center pretty soon.
“Not before I find out what happened to my parents.” She pursed her already thin lips. “The message promised the knowledge, and I shall get it.”
Somebody was coming into the room, muttering under the breath, shuffling the worn slippers. The alluring smell thickened. The whiff of smoke hit Sophia’s face, and she coughed. The wiry elderly man took the smoldering stick from his mouth.
“You have never seen these things,” he said apologetically. “Your lot punishes people even for smoking something way more innocuous. Want some?”
He deftly made another stick. Sophia had no idea what she was going to inhale, but the taste was quite pleasant. Her head instantly lightened. She giggled, suddenly recoiling.
“You are like a puppy,” the stranger sat on the sofa next to her. “When the dogs learn to bark, they are at first afraid of their voice. Your lot does not laugh,” sadness marred his smile.
“You do not cry either, since there are no reasons to cry. I am the Monsignor,” he added. “Welcome to the Purgatory”.
Such was the shop’s name, seen by Sophia above the entrance. She briefly wondered what the word meant. Sophia had never heard it before, but remembered that the monsignor had something to do with a church. She read about it in one of her father’s books, the same one where she saw the crucifixes.
The man next to her was wearing a simple black shirt. Sophia puffed on her stick. His dark eyes were laughing.
“You are a natural,” Monsignor said approvingly. “I promised you knowledge about your parents”.
“I think they have been sent here. I mean to The Nether. Nobody speaks about it, but there are no old people in The Center”.
“Your lot does not bother with the banishment of the elderly. They are eliminated in the single procedure”.
“This is what happened to my Mum and Dad? It could not be.” She shook her head. “I am twenty-five, and no one is permitted to reproduce after thirty. There were too young for such an outcome.”
She thought for a while.
“Maybe my mother was exterminated for some transgression, and my father shared her fate, only later?”
“Partly true. This will help you gain knowledge and power.” He produced a vial with something red inside.
“Would you like to take it?”
The thick drink left a sweet taste in her mouth.
She muttered, “Are my parents dead?”
The voice of Monsignor was drifting away, “They are in Heaven, Sophia”.
She smiled contentedly, closing her eyes, “I know”.
Something warm engulfed her. Sophia has never felt so peaceful. The distant light illuminated her vision. Her head was clear, and a body almost weightless. Turning around, she timidly opened her eyes. Her father was sitting next to the bed. Sophia stiffened the surprised gasp.
Silvery threads marked the unruly mane of his curly dark hair. The strong hand stroked her fingers.
“Welcome to The Heaven, Sophia,” he stood up. “I am sorry you had to come here this way, but there is only one Purgatory. Monsignor keeps the gates open for those who are supposed to join The Heaven. Please come here.”
Her father went to the glass wall surrounding the room. Leaving the old-fashioned bed, Sophia noticed the rows of books on the wooden shelves. Among the cupboards hung a beautiful picture of a woman in a green dress, reading a letter. Her father sat on the glided sofa.
“She has always reminded us of you.” He pointed at the painting. “You will see more pictures. We keep here all the masterpieces of the Earth’s museums.”
Sophia asked, “We?”
“Your mother will come momentarily,” he answered. “She is on library duty now. Look.” Her father drew Sophia nearer. “This is the place I hope you will never return to.”
The azure globe soared on the black canvas of space. Her father looked at the Earth silently. His face twitched, he collected himself.
“We feel that our children should experience the life below,” he added. “You understand now why we call our abode The Heaven.”
Sophia remembered the generic furniture of her Central quarters, the constant surveillance, the fear and loathing at work, the loneliness of the nights spent in front of the screen, the dull eyes of the people on the street.
“I do.” She nodded. “Have you ever wanted to change them, Dad?”
He shook his head.
“We left the Earth hundreds of years ago when it became clear that people like us are no longer welcomed there. In the Heaven, we are free to read and learn, to create and argue, Sophia. Here she is.” He unexpectedly lightly sprang to his feet.
The tall, angular woman with a cropped red hair stood at the arched entrance.
“I am so sorry.” She stepped forward. “Finally, you are safe and we will never let you go back to that horrible place. I could not adjust there and left after you were born, but your Dad persevered, wanting you to remember the warmth of the family.”
She opened her arms. Taking her father’s hand, Sophia went to her mother.
Nelly Shulman is a writer currently based in Berlin. Her work has appeared on JewishFiction.net, in the Vine Leaves Press Anthology of the Best 2021 Flash Fiction and in the various literary magazines.