***Accidentally marked as Part 6, it’s been corrected now.***
After running for 5 minutes, Serina slows to a walk. She knows she would have put a decent distance between herself and her chauffeur by now. After catching her breath, she looks around and sees an old truck, painted mostly with faded red paint. A man is sitting in the truck bed, eating something. Serina goes closer, and the man spots her. His eyes widen.
“You’re not supposed to be out here. Do you know what the Arlington Guard do when they see people like us roaming the streets off the job?” Serina is confused. “What us? Do you know me? What does the Guard do to us?” Serina, now within arm’s length of the back of the truck, can make out the nametag on his red shirt.
“Well,” says the man, “I’m Rob, from the Arlington Delivery Services, ID 1127.” He tries not to slip up, in case Serina could be a city inspector disguised naked. “You’re naked. So, I assumed that you were from the slums. I’m also from the slums, but I’m lucky enough to be given a job by the city.”
Pieces start to click into place for Serina. “Oh, well I’m not from any slum. I live in one of those towers over there.” She points in the direction of her home. “I just wanted to learn more about what the city was like, I haven’t been outside in years.” She tells her story of why she came and what Pierre said on the balcony and how she escaped from Mr. Rolet. When she finished, Rob asked about her clothes. “Oh, I’ve never worn any for as long as I can remember. I’ve never needed the protection inside my home. And this is my first time outside, I had no idea that everyone would be covering themselves. I don’t see the reason, it’s quite warm today.”
“For a second during your story, I thought you would be one of those presumptuous, stuck-up types. Thankfully, you’re not. And for your clothing, I think my daughter would be better able to explain the social norms to you. We don’t wear clothing at home either, for very different reasons. The only clothing the city provides us with are these work uniforms. We do not have the disposable income to buy clothes for leisurely wear, nor can we take the risk of them getting dirty or damaged.”
A memory comes to Serina’s mind. “You spoke about risk. I was told that the reason that you are in slums is because of gambling additions.”
Rob frowns. “Be careful saying that. Many would get offended. I don’t, but many would. Saying that it is THE reason is wildly incorrect. No, most of us are here because of a broken system that allows the rich to get richer, but not much for the poor person. People like your father were in the fortunate position to get a good education, so they could start a business or work at a reputable company. My parents couldn’t pay for food some days, let alone school. So, we don’t get accepted into well-paying jobs, we can’t make money, and the cycle repeats for our children. Some of us were very lucky to be employed by the city as delivery drivers, or by other employers as maids, chefs, drivers, et cetera. Most of these jobs don’t pay very well. Someone should count themselves very lucky if their employer provides housing and food for them in exchange for work. Your father is one such man. Let’s do something, this was my last delivery. If you don’t feel like going back to your home so soon, stay with my family. I have a daughter that looks about your age, a son who’s looking for a job, and my wife works as a maid for extra money whenever she can. All of us are of working age, so we’re doing good compared to most other families that are struggling for food.”
“I’d love to, if it isn’t a bother.” Rob invites her into the cab of the truck, and she immediately notices that the truck is very old. The doors are much harder to open and close, as they aren’t electronically assisted. The center stack lacks the large touchscreen found on Mr. Rolet’s SUV, instead there is a simple segmented display, two knobs, and a few tactile buttons. Once they set off, Serina notices that his right hand is fiddling with a stick in the center console occasionally, and his left foot is moving up and down during both acceleration and deceleration.
“Rob, what are you doing with this hand and your left leg? Mr. Rolet never had to do this in his car.” Serina has never seen or heard of a manual transmission. “This truck contains a manual transmission. The truck is powered by electricity, like the SUV you rode in with Mr. Rolet, but the power of the motors is far weaker. So, it must pass through a transmission to adjust the power to turn the wheels the right amount. I have to manually switch the gears of the transmission using this stick, but first I need to disconnect the motor from the wheels using this pedal, the clutch. Then I use the accelerator and the clutch pedals to match the wheel speed with the motor speed. Doing it wrong will damage the transmission and clutch. This is found in sports cars for those who want to change the gears themselves, or in cheap vehicles like these, where the manufacturer can’t be bothered to put in a computer system to change the gears for you. Luxury vehicles usually have a higher-powered motor, eliminating the need for a clutch and transmission entirely.” Serina feels like she is learning so many more practical skills than she ever has before.
They approach a depot painted with the same red on the truck and Rob’s shirt. “I don’t know what they’ll do if they see me driving you around. Best get out of the car here, and then once I come back out, we have to walk to my home.” Rob stops before the next junction, letting Serina out. “Be right back,” and then he waves to Serina.
When he comes out of the depot after parking his truck, he is naked except for his boots. Serina remembers that they don’t have the money to buy new clothes. She had no idea that they were forbidden from taking their clothes home too though! Rob meets her and they start walking through an alleyway. Then, she sees multiple small homes, some of them two stories with an exterior staircase. Most of them are small, one-story houses built out of a patchwork of sheet metal and crumbling concrete. Small kids are playing with a ball. They’re smeared with dirt all over. Rob notices her gaze and tells her that “Most people only shower once a week. We conserve our water. People like me, that work, have to shower every day. Because of your own lifestyle, you probably didn’t think much of the fact that everyone is naked too.”
“You’ve built a close-knit community here. I’ve never even played with other kids my age.” Serina continues observing the kids with the ball. Rob taps her shoulder and starts walking forward. Soon they enter an area where the houses don’t touch each other so closely. It’s more built up, with multiple stories, but the architecture is clearly crumbling. Some of the walls are painted pink, blue, and green. Rob stops walking and walks through an open door.
They enter a room. One wall has a simple stove, cabinets, and sink. Another wall has a few stools and a table. The third wall has blankets laid on the ground for bedding. Rob’s daughter is organizing a cabinet, and his son is washing dishes. “Kids, we have a guest. This is Serina. Serina, this is Jessica, and this is Josh.” After the overlapping “Hello”s and “Nice to meet you”s, Josh asks where Serina is from.
To make sure that Serina doesn’t get off on the wrong foot, Rob starts before Serina has a chance to respond. “Serina lives in one of the towers in Metro, but she ran away because she wanted to experience life here.”
“Not much to experience here, we basically do the same thing every day.” Jessica says. “The only interesting things around here are occasional nighttime parties. Metro, you say? I thought everyone there wore fancy suits and imported dresses.”
Serina tells her that “I don’t remember ever wearing clothes. No one in my house wears clothes either. Except when cooking. The chefs wear aprons.”
Rob explains further. “Because she doesn’t need to see anyone outside, they never needed to wear clothes. Like us, we stay naked around here except when we go to work. Did you see where your mother went?”
Josh tells him that she’s working late, due to a corporate dinner at her client’s home. “Okay, that’ll be fine. Josh, can you make dinner? Jessica, show Serina around.” Jessica eagerly takes Serina’s arm and leads her outside.
Jessica starts rambling “Okay, Dad owns the top floor of the building, but he rents it out to another family for extra cash. Over there, where those pipes come up, that’s the shower. Some people wear underwear, especially those with a bit more money or if they just have terrible spending habits. They drag that metal sheet from that wall and hold it up during their shower for some privacy. Then-” She is cut off by Serina.
“But why would they need privacy? Or underwear? It’s not like wearing underwear screams status. I would probably feel more embarrassed wearing underwear than wearing nothing at all.”
“RIGHT? Finally, someone who gets it. And you’re rich too. You might not know this, because you’re from a place where you don’t see others that much.” She says it very matter of fact, not intending offense. “Wearing nice clothes means you have more money. Here, where clothes are luxury items, wearing any clothes at all shows that you have money. It’s mostly people our age that wear underwear, excited that they got their first money. Nudity is associated with shame. People feel embarrassed when naked, for some reason. Anyway, let me continue showing you around. Turn right.” Serina thinks about how Mr. Rolet was wearing so many layers of clothing. Clothing isn’t just for protection. It appears to be a status symbol too. And protection for the ego. That’s silly.
As they go through the tour, Serina gets tired. It’s late at night, she’s missed her tea and bath, and she’s been running and walking almost continuously.
“It’s late, dinner should be ready by now. Before we turn around, there is the school. Adults take turns teaching everyone in the neighborhood under 13 years of age every other day. “13? I’m still learning from my tutors and I’m 19.” Serina wonders what people do if they don’t learn. “Well, families need money. Once the kid turns 13, they find a job. Usually as a maid or doing some other local job for money. Trash collection, mechanic, et cetera.”
Serina sees a flaw in her argument. “Well, if they don’t get education, they can’t get a higher paying job. Wouldn’t that be a better long-term plan?” “Yes, but we have to think about how to put food on the table tomorrow, not next year. We don’t have the luxury of savings to fall back onto. My father is better about keeping an emergency fund than others, but it’s enough for maybe a week of food. When he’s off work, he reads old textbooks he finds in trash bins. He knows most of world history from the first century onwards.” Serina is excited that she might have someone to discuss history with. The only people in her household that know anything about history are her tutors.
By the time Serina and Jessica return to the small house, the sky is dark and people start lighting torches and lanterns. On the table, there are four plates each with one of bread and a small cup of dried veggies. Josh feels bad that this is all they can give a guest. “I know it’s not much, but it’s what we have.” Serina realizes that even this one meal probably cuts into their emergency fund. “It’s more than enough, thank you.”
After they eat, they go outside, where people are already starting to gather in the space between houses. Throughout the night, people sing, dance, chat, laugh, cry, and everything in between. Serina yells to Jessica and Josh over the noise, “I’ve never experienced anything like this!” “Isn’t it great?” Josh yells back. The party starts to wind down as people go to sleep.
Once there’s only a few people passed out on the benches, Jessica and Josh talked with Serina about her life in the Metropolis. “There’s no life there, nothing like this. Everything is empty,” Serina says. She tells them about her daily routine, and they talk for an hour like old friends. Eventually, they go back into the house and go to sleep on the blankets spread out on the floor.
When they wake up, people have already started showering and going to work. Jessica and Rob are gone, and Josh is cleaning up the bedding. “Good morning, Sleeping Beauty.” Serina sits up straight and leans against the wall. “Good morning, Josh.”
“Rob’s left for work already and Jessica went to go shower. I leave the neighborhood usually in another hour and look for a job. Are you going back home anytime?” Josh motions for Serina to stand up so that he can fold the blankets. As Josh folds the sheets, Serina realizes that she has to go back home soon. Pierre and Molly are probably worried sick. “Maybe today? They’re probably looking for me.”
“Good idea. This place gets very lonely around noon. You came here to experience things, and you’ve experienced everything short of living here long-term. But that’s probably for the better. Do convince your father to let you out more, though.” Josh throws her a plastic wrapped cereal bar. “This was supposed to be my breakfast, but I can find something else. I gotta go look for work anyway. Maybe today I’ll find some more permanent employment than odd jobs.”
Serina looks at her breakfast. She feels terrible for taking food from someone who clearly needs it. “Come with me. I could try to get you a job. It wouldn’t be glamourous work, cleaning or food services probably. It would pay decently, and you would work in a climate-controlled building. It’s the least I can do for your hospitality.” Josh graciously accepts, and Serina splits the cereal bar in half. “Thank you.” They walk out of the neighborhood. Serina takes one last look at the crumbling buildings and faded paints.
To be continued…