A great short story by Nancy Shefford
“Why is Charlie next door always screaming, mom?”
“I don’t know sweetheart, but he’ll stop in a few minutes. He always does. Just let things rest, and don’t tell on him. Protein up, please.”
Cammy nodded and drank her cereal slowly, feeling the warm grains spread across her tongue as she slurped the gray liquid up the straw.
The best part of the day, she thought. Getting something warm.
“Before you bundle-up for school, sit in front of the imagination box and brain a story. You’ll feel better and be ready for your tests and whatever Mr. Appleton has to teach today. He was my teacher too, you know.”
Cammy moved slowly to the smaller of two chairs in front of a rectangular box against the brown wall each home in Mandalas had. Each home in all the villas had. One brown, one orange, one white, one gray. The elders said they stood for earth, fire, wind, and rain. But what did they know?
The government set the standards, enforced the rules, and controlled the stories from the past. And the founders and their families lived in large homes in the mountains, far from the gaze of the valley people. Did they have four colored walls? It was a question often asked, but not in loud tones.
Cammy finished watching the box, letting her imagination run skip-free and pondering what her mother told her about a time when things were different, even before she was her age of twelve.
It was a time before walls, before separate villas, before the sky fell. Cammy’s mother talked of warm summer days that lasted twelve hours, instead of the three and a half hours of light Cammy knew.
Imagine, she often thought, a day where you could see clouds and birds that flew across a sunlit sky instead of skittering along gray-dust paths looking for bugs.
At school, Mr. Appleton told his charges again about cleaning water, keeping their rooms picked up, and of course, about algebra, his favorite subject.
“But before you go, I want those of you that scored ninety-percent or higher on our society test to stay a few more minutes for a chat.”
“Great,” said Nicholas, “we thought-boxed our nights away to get the best grades, and now we have to stay after class!”
“Oh, stop, Nicky, it’s just a couple of minutes. You’ll live it up,” Cammy said.
When the last stragglers had left the room, Mr. Appleton addressed the remaining over-achievers as he did each year, with a mix of hope and nostalgia.
“So, the four of you did great on your tests. You’ve got imagination as well as intelligence. And each year I let my best students hear a story that we keep to ourselves. You can talk about this fable among yourselves if you want. Then in a few days, we’ll get together one more time and talk.”
“Because you’re doing more work than the others in the class, you’ll each get two rations of protein at the end of the final talk.”
“Wow, a pop of protein for just staying after class? That’s a lot better than an “A+,” said Mary.
“Yes, it is,” Mr. Appleton offered.
Mary was usually the quiet one in class, but Mr. Appleton still noticed her. She was independent and had some difficulty with authority, so he bumped her grade up slightly to get her in the group of four kids.
That was a teacher’s prerogative, just as it was to drop Skip Korbel’s grade, even though he was probably the most gifted child in the class. His father was a government man, better to steer clear of.
“So, Mary, Cammy, Nicholas, and Tim. You’ve gotten good grades. You’re special, so you get to hear my little story, and then come back on Thursday to discuss it after class. Just do me the favor of not telling anyone else about this. You see, I do this little speech each year, and I want to keep using it, so mum’s the word.”
The students nodded at each other and settled in to hear the story. Unlike his usual teachings, concise and to the point, this one was quite fanciful. About a time in the mystical past when people held lightning in their hands. They walked with pictures, music, and all the information in the universe at their command. But it was a sickness, a never-ending chase for instant gratification.
So, when the war for “T” (the word technology wasn’t used) and intellectual property super-charged between the known nations, countries took sides. Then the planes flew, the ships swam, and the missiles torched Mother Earth until she wept.
And, to this day, her skin and tears still floated above the world in a purple haze that shrouded the land. A misty, drifting part of the people’s lives that reduced visibility, hindered crop production, and left little light or hope in their dreary lives.
“That’s the story for the day, my little vessels,” Mr. Appleton said. “I know that was a bit flowery and fun, a bit of fantasy for your future. But what if it could be real?”
Mr. Appleton gave them a weary smile and waved before clearing his desk for the day and heading home.
The students walked in a cluster and spoke softly, happy to have a secret to themselves. It was getting dark, but they giggled a bit at the silly idea that a few youngsters could harness lightening and control it to warm themselves, or provide light, or even make the imagination box tell stories out loud, with pictures like a window. What a world that would be.
When Cammy got home, she went in to cuddle with her cat, Mr. Penelope and gave him his ground gourd mush. He purred a bit, then jumped off her lap and lapped at his food.
Cammy took the opportunity to go next door and talk to Charlie before her mother got home from work. After she knocked, she waited patiently, since Charlie didn’t move quickly. But he arrived and peered out the barely-opened door at the small girl.
“Hi, Charlie. I was talking to my teacher, Mr. Appleton, and I remember you saying he was not just a nice teacher, but a thinker. What did you mean by that?”
“Did you get good grades and hear a story today?”
“Well, I suppose you can come in, then. Walk this way, don’t touch my papers, and don’t spit or anything.”
“Yes, no, of course not.”
“So, why are you here?”
“Well, is it true? Could we once again have…,” and Cammy stopped, as though someone might hear, and then continued, “Could we develop technology to have warmth in our homes again?”
“You can always build a fire.”
“Sure, if I had some wood and a fire pit in my house.”
“It’s possible, and so is current lightning or electricity.”
“Why don’t we have it then?”
Charlie returned her stare and answered in a low tone, “Because the technology is muddled.”
“People don’t understand it, and the government is scared to death of humanity gaining just enough knowledge to blow ourselves up again.”
“That never happened!”
“Sure, it did. My grandfather told me the stories, and I believe him.”
“So, you believe Mr. Appleton. Have you ever considered trying to change things here, develop new ideas?”
“Yes, little Cammy, I try to think of how to make new things, but it’s very difficult.”
“I hear you sometimes scream like a rat is nibbling on your toes.”
“A rat is nibbling on my toes. It’s the rat that Mr. Appleton loosed in my brain that’s taken over my house. Look at this mess.”
The little girl took her first real look around the room and realized what she had taken for utter clutter, was a series of projects — the beginning of new technology on blocks and paper.
The following day, Cammy spoke with her friends after class. Both boys were unnerved by the thought of change and had no interest in upsetting the applecart. Mary felt differently. She was intrigued, and Cammy brought her home to talk.
They spent an hour playing with Mr. Penelope, then talked about a fanciful world where you could stay warm during the excessive darkness without bundling up under a crushing weight of blankets. Then, as Cammy told Mary about Charlie and his rat problem, Cammy’s mother arrived home.
“Hello, my darlings, and what have you been doing this mid-afternoon?”
“We were just playing with the cat, and talking about, well, being warm and stuff.”
Cammy’s mother offered a knowing smile and asked if they had been talking about Mr. Appleton’s story.
“Yes,” said Mary, “but how did you know?”
“Are you kidding, with you bright girls? You’re just the kind to hear about a different past and a different future.”
“Mom, do you think we could make a difference? Could we develop electricity again, if it was true in the past?”
“You’ve been talking to Charlie, haven’t you?”
“That’s alright. Why don’t you knock on his door and see if he wants to have protein with us? There might be a lot to talk about tonight, even without the imagination box.”
An hour later the four conspirators were laughing together, huddling close, pondering the possibilities. They were cold, hungry, and even with a government that could vanquish them for developing technology or harnessing the advances of the past, they continued talking.
They spoke all night. For who needed the luxury of sleep, when being awake could offer dreams?