The Talent Show

Here is my short story – written for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize – the theme, Home is Elsewhere:

THE TALENT SHOW

It’s all a cosmic joke. It must be. There’s no other explanation for it. We were the only ones to make it out. The only ship to escape ‘The Blackening’ and yet we were the only ship ill-equipped to land on its own. We’re floating along – it sounds so nice; floating. I miss the water, the feel of it caressing my skin; its coolness on a warm summer’s day. I miss swimming, I miss everything.

I have lived a long enough life to have a bucket full of regrets and yet I am still here, standing, striving, fighting for the air that I breathe. Does that make me a masochist or am I just a survivor?

Before ‘The Blackening’ I had a home, a family, a job. I took everything for granted. I thought that I had issues then, I felt like I was on the cusp of a burnout. Stress for the sake of stress. Bills to pay, petty disagreements over nothing, I even cared about the clothes that I wore. But none of that was real. It was an artificial reality made for us by others so that we wouldn’t have to think about the real problems.

While I was busy spinning my wheels, being a cog in the great capitalistic, societal machine – striving to be a model citizen, I missed all the signs. I guess you could say that we were all so distracted by our devices and social media and Netflix and trying to be people that we were never meant to be, that we forgot to look up. We forgot to ask questions.

Now here we are, directionless and meaningless and hopeless – existing for the sake of it. Drifting through an endless, boundless, space with no purpose at all and no hope of rescue.

“Rhema, are you ready?” Captain Shane asked as he entered my pod.

“I have nothing better to do,” I replied, mildly thankful for a distraction.

“It will keep the natives happy,” Shane answered. “And if my memory serves me correctly Rhema, wasn’t this your idea?”

I gave him my famous half smile and said, “That was before I realised that we were on a road to nothing.”

“Nothing and something. The universe is circular – it doesn’t matter our trajectory, we will end up where we are supposed to be,” Shane answered. “Now come, we have an uplifting talent show to judge.”

I had to hand it to Shane; he was forever the optimist. I on the other hand was a realist and with our supplies slowly dwindling and no end to our journey in sight – we were on the fast track to the extinction of the human race and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe somehow it was for the best.

I sat at the judges’ desk. Seating had been set out for the full complement of passengers and crew and only a few people were missing. I suppose sometimes it can be good to forget.

First Officer Duvall introduced the first act; a young woman by the name of Teena Grey. She had lined up easels, covered in sheets, across the stage.

Teena bowed to the applause and then recited:

“In a world where everything had turned upside-down, Donald thought he had finally found his rightful place. He sat on the toilet, contemplating the coming morning. Would today be the day that he would finally get to push the button on all his problems? For you see – our Donald had a final solution of his own and he was just biding his time until he could use it.”

The sheet came off the first easel with a rush and there was a detailed painting of our dear departed president sitting upon his throne. Teena continued:

“Donald opened his wallet and extracted three pieces of toilet paper. He never wiped with anyone less than Benjamin Franklin. ‘Much, much softer than the others,’ he thought to himself. He finished and as he did, he flushed the hopes of everyone who had ever lived, down the toilet and made his short journey to work.

‘I work so hard,’ he thought to himself as he moseyed past his golf clubs.”

She uncovered the next painting. The contrast of the beautiful green grass with the vivid yellow of the sandy bunkers made me swallow hard.

Teena smiled at the brief applause and then recited, “Donald sat in his big, leather chair wondering how long it would take for his new crown to arrive from the jewellers. The phone rang. He hated such primitive technology.

“”Why is it that we don’t have holograms yet?!” he exclaimed. “Damn Obama and his stupid Obamacare.”

Teena uncovered the next painting to a great ovation. Staring out at us was a portrait of the previous and last great president.

She continued, “Donald picked up the red receiver, “Yes,” he answered.

“”Hey Don, it’s Vlady. Kim’s doing it today – I’m giving you the go ahead.”

“”Thanks Boss,” Donald said and he excitedly hung up the phone.

“Donald was glad that he had given himself permission to make all the important decisions on his own.

“”Those executive order thingamabobs are so great,” he said aloud to no one in particular.

“He entered both the codes and the keys and then turned them simultaneously. Donald hadn’t been completely honest with Vlad. He hadn’t told him the entirety of his solution to the planet’s problems. Our Donald didn’t just have the warheads point at Kim. As he thumped his palm down upon the big, red button, he imagined the missiles zooming out in all directions and he laughed maniacally as a computerised woman’s voice counted down the seconds until impact………”

The final painting showed our once vibrant planet, surrounded by fireworks of all different colours.  A kaleidoscope of colour forging its way through the sky. But we all knew that’s not what it was that caused ‘The Blackening.’

“That’s how I imagine it all happened anyway,” Teena concluded to a subdued round of applause.

It wasn’t the nuclear bombs themselves or the famine and disease that was suffered afterwards due to the contamination and a loss of infrastructure and clean water, that caused the end. It was the bombs’ effect on the atmosphere. I’m no scientist, but somehow the atmospheric layers became thinner, weaker, and so it no longer protected us from meteors. The moon helped a little – diverting and saving us from some – but the meteors which made it through were unrelenting and caused the most damage. It was the one which broke off a large chunk, big enough to become a second moon which caused ‘The Blackening’.

I’m sure it sounds silly – given my planet was killed by stupidity and hell fire – but I miss the flowers and the animals the most. We had some amazing animals on our planet. Who needs aliens when you have ginormous, intelligent beings with long trunks and big ears – or all fluffy with waggling tails or even a duck’s bill on an amphibious furry little creation. And trees and flowers of every shape and colour known to humankind. It’s amazing what one tiny seed can produce. Held in the palm of a hand and strewn into the dirt. From a tiny copper seed, beauty emerges and grows and produces all that we needed to live. The air we breathed, the food we ate, the beauty for our eyes to perceive. We took so many things for granted.

Now everything is charred and blackened and turned to ashes. It is no longer an amazing blue and green planet, but a dark, eerie mess. It’s as though evil came and consumed our planet, swallowed it in one gulp and left us with nothing, stranded.

The crowd had settled and the easels had been cleared. Duvall introduced the next act. I hoped that the theme would be more uplifting – but given what we had all been through – I supposed that art and song was the only way that the people here could express their sorrow at the loss of their home and families and lives.

“My name’s Benji and I have written a rap – at about a beat per second if you’d all just clap.”

The audience complied and Benji began:

“The voices of tomorrow screamed at us to stop,

but we kept on going like we didn’t give a fuck.

How did we get here – drifting through space,

the final members of the human race.

I didn’t choose any of this so why am I still here,

I never wanted to live in a world full of fear.

 

“Who was this elitist army to tell us what to do?

They never had to struggle, fight or go without food. 

A silver spoon in their mouths from the time that they emerged,

maybe we needed an elitist purge.

What is money anyway; a human construct.

We kept on letting it lead us until we were all fucked.

Time is another one of those imaginary things,

like borders and the tools of oppression that they bring.

 

“Why did we allow one another to suffer?

Are we not all human sisters and brothers?

Greedy shirts, cut-away skirts, self-esteem laying crumpled in the corner.

Biceps, triceps, pumping, jumping selfies, losing any kind of honour.

One person can’t do anything but raise their hand,

and say enough is enough we need to fix this land.

Maybe if we found some other home we could start again.

 Bring in a system of merits and equality, instead inequality of (wo)men.

 

“I wanted to jettison myself into the arms of another place.

And now here I am floating through outer space.

Our system was built on inequality, exclusion and tyranny,

all neatly wrapped up as democracy.

That was not my system, that was not my choice.

I tried to shout out but no one could hear my voice.

 

“Akimbo, alleviate, appreciate, complicate,

flowing, growing, forecast, telecast.

In the minds of many ticks the clock of mortality,

forgetting about the strings of immorality.

A lack of hope, not enough rope to hang us all from the deadened trees.

Bones, dust, nothing – we locked the gates,

turned our heads away, didn’t even contemplate –

Never questioning, never asking for just one second-

How has it all come down to this?”

 

Benji took a bow to rapturous applause. I don’t think people were truly listening to his words; I think they appreciated the beat, the rhythm, the reassuring lull of his voice. I couldn’t remember the last time I had heard any kind of music before Benji’s performance.

In my mind so far, he was the winner of this dystopian talent quest. I looked across at Shane. As always, his face showed no emotion. I think stoicism was an important factor in being given the Captaincy.

I wasn’t even certain anymore how long we had been on that damned ship. Day and night were simulated by the ship itself – but we all stopped counting the days long ago. We all had our routines and our roles to play. Mine was easy enough – I got to spend most of my days in the engine room. I preferred to avoid people, it made me feel less hopeless when I didn’t have to read it in the eyes of everybody else, day in, day out. I could stay hidden; I felt much safer that way.

I spent my time reimagining the sensations that I missed the most. The wind in my hair, the sand beneath my feet, the smell of fresh bread in the morning. All these sensations had sunken into the depths of my mind and I would look through the portal back towards our dying planet and I would wonder how far we had actually come. Were whirlwinds ever so sure of themselves, chaotic, fast and all over the place; zig-zagging and creating their very own web of destruction?

Who were all of these people around me anyway and what were they escaping from? On the sea of hope we threw ourselves into the darkness and beyond. The cracked and faded walls were closing in. The first few weeks of our journey I crouched in the corner and I prayed. It was the first time that I had ever done it. I wasn’t exactly sure who I was praying to, or what I was praying for, but when all hope is lost, all you can do is grasp at any source of light – no matter how small.

I don’t pray anymore.

Duvall introduced the third and final act. It was a young man, no more than 20 years of age and he was carrying a bucket – his name was Digby Moray. He had big ears and looked just like a wing-nut. Brilliant – if we survive, we have destined the future generations to massive ears – although maybe better hearing.

Digby began, “I’ve spent my life digging for wormholes – trying to find a way to go back in time. Searching for a way to retouch all those souls that I have left behind; trying to change what I wasn’t able to understand then, but what I have lived to learn now. But every time I’d come close, each and every time I’d come within striking distance of a wormhole, it would cave in upon itself and it would return to grit, dust and dirt. What do worms know anyway? Just because they have two indistinguishable ends and long, peristaltic bodies – that just makes them all the more confusing.”

Digby stepped off the stage and handed the bucket to the first audience member.

“Take a handful of Earth, of my crushed wormholes, and pass it around,” he said. “I know it’s not a talent – but it’s a piece of our old home and I think we should all carry the memory of it around with us. Something tangible to give us hope for the future. My mother always told me that home is where the heart is. My problem is that I let my heart go too easily. I was careless with both my heart and my soul. It would have been so much simpler to keep it within me – carrying my home around as a tortoise does, only poking my head out when it was safe to do so.

“Instead, my heart floated off to heaven when I lost all the people who I loved. Now I need to find another heart and another home – and I wanted to share the last remnants of Earth with you all. We are on an important journey together and I know that we will find a place to call home and place where we can start again.”

As Shane took a handful of Earth, he looked at me with a smile and proclaimed, “Rhema, I think we’ve found ourselves a winner.”

I nodded, although inside I still secretly wanted Benji to win. But I’ve learned over the years, that it’s better never to contradict your Captain.

If home is where the heart is then it is in my chest – beating like a never-ending drum, swishing like a stream in my ear. Our very own personal clock – ticking for the entire extent of our lives, of our consciousness, and then ending as if we were never really there. Home is therefore in my chest – within that echoing cavity, between my breasts. The part of me that hurts when things go wrong or lifts when all is well. But if I carry home within me – if it is everywhere I go – then why do I always feel as though I don’t belong.

I think home is my future, an unchartered expanse of nothingness. My hope is all that I have left as we drift aimlessly through space and time. All I know is that home is not right here or right now; home is elsewhere.

(The title image is sourced from NASA)

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