"Can we go to the zoo now? I feel like growling at a lion on a humorous pseudo-imagination trip." Eight-year-old Maybella did not want to be here. Her great grandmother, Katy Rose, smelled of old vapor strips and sounded like a broken accordion. She was entirely crackers and, as Maybella reminded her mother tactlessly, probably dangerous. The story she was currently telling had all the marks of chauvanism,and the imperious child was not going to stand for it. Who on earth still wore riding hoods of any color, let alone a ridiculous shade of red?
"Why don't you listen like a good little scholar of the twenty-first century and I won't confiscate your role-playing tool." Maybella's mother, Jenna, was not about to be distracted from her cultural duty. She needed to convince her daughter to at least affect concern for the elderly or the well-being counsellors (unofficially the 'Raise Your Unique and Special Gem of a Child, Who I've Never Met, Like We the Shrinks Think She Should Be Raised Because a Bachelor's Degree Is a More Than Adequate Replacement for Real Life Experience Twenty-Four Hours a Day and No, We Don't Have Any Children of Our Own Because They Would Interfere With Our Studies' Club) would be after her for deviating. The odors and noises of old age had ceased to amaze Jenna as they did young children, and her own emerging grey hairs were causing a seed of sympathy to germinate in her weed patch of annoyance with the elderly. The matter of Katy Rose's cracker-like quality, though harder to ignore, did not mar her respect for the grandmother who had... erm, sent her a twenty every birthday and probably filled a forgotten but vital spot in the mental trading card deck of People It Wouldn't Hurt To Grow Up To Be Like of her youth. She could not really remember which model citizens andor cartoon characters she had aspired to be when she was younger, only that she did not even vaguely resemble any of them in any positive way, except maybe the guy from Mr. Jenkin's Intergalactic Playhouse who had lived, impossibly, on Alpha Centauri, and she didn't know if living with her head in the clouds had been the best ambition, after all.
As it was, her head had never really been very close to this particular planet, but after watching Mr. Jenkin's for three straight years of her childhood and about fifteen more as a daycare worker, Jenna was scatterbrained enough to begin introducing her daughter to all of the various formerly productive members of society that littered the nursing home who smelled worse than her own great granny and completely forget that the nurse had asked her to watch said ancestor like a falcon. Or was it a hawk? Oh, well, she was trying to teach Maybella a lesson in respect, not ornithology.
"Miss Applebaum, I'd like you to meet my daughter," Jenna addressed an aging woman who looked as though she hadn't remembered Jenna back when she was the woman's teacher, let alone for years after-- she'd never won a Nobel prize or anything, just exploded a beaker of nitric acid. "Say hello to Miss Applebaum, Maybella," said Jenna in a falsely cheery voice. "No, honey" she warned, suddenly dropping her voice to a whisper, "the poor woman's ears have always done that. And you'd do well to stay away from Mr. Tennyson as long as he's got those nail clippers. Miss Applebaum," she informed the now-traumatized girl in a louder voice, "was my ninth grade teacher. She used to collect postage stamps-- those things that looked like stickers-- back when there was a whole government office for sending information through letters? The government required a payment for each letter, and you proved you had paid it by putting a stamp on the corner of the envelope your letter came in. Sometimes the stamps had pretty pictures on them, and people would collect them." There now, thought Jenna, now she knows what a rich resource of living history can be found in the local nursing home. That's enough cultural education for a few months-- I can leave her with a baby sitter for the next few weekends with minimal guilt. "See," she hissed bitterly, "your great-grandmother's looking relatively normal now, isn't she?"
Here we go again, thought Maybella. The girl had never really seen why respect for the elderly was so important in her Goal. Wasn't Peer Interaction better for a child her age? It certainly felt more rewarding. "Can't I go visit one of my Lifelong Companions? Only it has to be one with a sandbox so I can fulfill my needs for creative social play with manual labor." And if Patrick got smart with her, she swore she'd dump her bucket of sand on his head.
"Maybe later," Jenna suggested. And if Patrick's mother made one more snide comment about Maybella lagging behind in imagination exercises and it somehow being Jenna's fault for not signing her up for trombone lessons, she swore she'd dump a bucket of sand on her head.
The room was impractically lit by hydroelectric power from the lake nearby, so that the lights went dim and shiny in waves, like the variant brightness often noted by a child attempting to read an exciting book on a car trip by the irregular glow of streetlights. The problem could have been fixed in a moment—as Jenna often noted, Rolling Hills retirement home was not a GoTel 6, and the money paid by wealthy relatives of the elderly every quarter was not exactly exhausted paying for old checkerboards and Water Jazzercise instructors. Yet, the owners of the home seemed to think the residents didn't notice when they skimmed off the water purification and electricity funds in favor of buying pleasure cars for themselves. At the moment, the lights were brightest over a rather tall woman with piercing grey eyes who looked bored and grinned painfully when Jenna shook her hand and called her 'granny Kat', like she hadn't learned to pronounce the woman's name at least forty years ago.
Katy Rose was not about on the lukewarm welcome of her son's offspring. "Bet you fifty dollars the new nurse calls the police when Tennyson tries to put the moves on her," she whispered to her friend Clark, ignoring Jenna.
"Why, Katy Rose, are you developing feistiness characteristic of women between the ages of ninety and ninety-five? How progressive of you!" Clark looked up eagerly from his knitting. He had always been partial to Katy Rose's flights of fancy. Sometimes, they almost made him forget that his family had not visited him in months.
Okay, friend was a bit of an overstatement. The world was going mad, was it? Maybe it was good she was near death.
No matter. The woman's mind was intent on the miniature girl in Maybella's arms. These days it wasn't so much a doll as a role-playing tool. Though its garb was as unfamiliar as the rest of this decade, the color of the doll's hair appeared to be exactly the same as that of another doll, which had been cradled in another little girl's arms long ago. It had been a Malibu Stacy, as she remembered, and her daughter had been cradling it too loosely, a perilous notion when the girl was simultaneously giving Stacy a tour of US Route 53 out the window. She had dropped Stacy onto the shoulder of the highway, and Katy Rose had promised to get the doll back the following year, when they returned once again to the open road for their annual road trip. However, that year, road trips had become a thing of the past.
Teleportation, which had formerly been possible only for its inventors, then important politicians, then the enormously wealthy, then those of medium-strength wealth, then the guy next door who wore wing tips, was provided free by the government for the first time in the summer of Katy Rose's thirty-ninth year. She had no reason or means to drive to Otter Lake the next spring; the guy next door who wore wing tips might have been able to afford the upkeep of a pleasure car, but she sure as heck couldn't handle automobile and teleportation expenses. She would never again gaze out the window into the darkness of an overhead tunnel and fall groggily back onto a leather seat with a plastic back kicked into dented oblivion by the toes of small children. Now she went everywhere in boxes the size of elevators that made a funny compressing sound on takeoff but weren't nearly as stylish as a good old-fashioned Hummer. For starters, there was nowhere to put a bumper sticker. Not that a political slogan written on a bumper sticker had ever convinced her to switch political ideologies; they were really, upon further reflection, more about style than purpose. Today, every moment had a purpose. Highways, the cesspools of senseless, raging traffic jams and skyrocketing fossil fuel prices, were gone-- they belonged to an era of daydreams.
Maybella would never lose that doll-- it had a special carrier and everything. Losing things was silly. It made one sad and wistful. She would give it away the instant she was too old for dolls, which would be the same instant every girl in her homeroom was too old for dolls, which would be the instant the shrinks who ran this bloody planet nowadays decided that the girls in the fourth grade had officially reached the nail polish and giggles phase. Jenna would never stop to think about why she worked in that infernal brat hole. Regret was ineffective. Much better to follow the shortest distance between two points, which was, of course, a wormhole these days. A wormhole that led to retirement.
Ha, Katy Rose could tell her how much joy that would bring. She could see what a waste it had been sending her grandchildren all that money. Didn't it make them see reason? When people grow old, they have plenty of cash, but no friends to share it with, only annoying kids that claim to be their children's children and blow fake kisses, but only when they reach the age at which they learn it's rude to demand a Tonka Lil' Moon Cruiser with power windows and a price tag equal to the federal education budget of Rwanda without saying please. Ah, well, she could always pass on the wisdom of her generation to Mr. Boyle's grandson. He at least pretended to eat the biscuits she made in that infernal workshop, 'Changing Societal Roles', or as she called it, 'You Still Have a Valuable Contribution To Make Despite Reaching Old Farthood and Losing the Ability to Comb Your Own Hair'. Katy Rose looked up and noted with gathering gloom that the hydroelectric light was fading over her side of the room. It made the literary bone in her sigh.
The highways had been forgotten. But they were still out there. Neither Jenna nor the nurse was watching. Maybella was busy avoiding the nailclippers of destruction (Mr. Tennyson was either off his rocker or a flirt with a very unusual technique). She could get Stacy back if she wanted. She could steal a car and drive and drive and drive until she saw the doll. Preposterous? Of course it was. That was the appeal of the adventure. What did it matter if it took all night? Better than a night of playing checkers with any of these apathetic old fools. As Maybella warned the police and her Lifelong Companions later with a hint of pride, her great grandmother was crackers.
Okay, so maybe she'd only been looking for a moment of peace when she'd promised to get the doll back. Maybe she'd never planned on crossing four lanes of traffic for an easily replaceable plaything. But sometimes a useless, stupid promise was all one had in this world. Any action that did not efficiently lead to her Goal of development as a senior citizen and gradual acceptance of death, or whatever the nurse had been blathering on about, seemed like a good idea tonight.
She had once wondered at her father's interest in baseball. His team had never won, and that had made it somehow all the more glorious to sit with him on a battered sofa on a Wednesday evening and cheer them on.
Katy Rose hoped with all the family loyalty left inside her that Jenna's current Goal in life, to find enjoyment in her current occupation and interpersonal relationships and accept life as a middle-aged woman, went horribly wrong for a bit. She wished fervently that Maybella's Goal of finding her ideal occupation and developing strong, lifelong interpersonal relationships while accepting life as a growing girl, would hit some major roadblocks. But then, the roadblocks were out on the highway, in the world of fantasy, where expensive sports cars were envied with a horrible fruitlessness and useless birds were flipped, where police officers shot up Dad's stress level past the boiling point and honked horns were all in good fun.
Katy Rose was going hunting, and she planned to bag a whole flock of daydreams.