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Geography Lesson

First Place 2015 Short Story Contest

He paced down the inner corridor, heading to the place he thought she might be, rolling a piece of sea glass in his hand. Odd, maybe, that he still panicked when she went missing, because she could never really be lost. At least they hadn’t left their human instincts behind.

It wasn’t the first time he had found her here. She was too smart to be captivated for long in the classroom with the other children—no, she wanted to find her own answers.

“Have you been here the whole time?” 

She looked so small, her skinny kid limbs folded on the floor in the adults’ library, paging through the old books. The other children preferred to keep themselves occupied with animal films and flying games or pressing their faces against the viewing portals and watching the stars go by. But Fiona was so much like her mother, or the mother she would have had. Maybe it was one of the worst things, that he couldn’t satisfy her curiosity. 

He thumbed the piece of sea glass, his talisman, his worry stone.

“Don’t you want to be on the field trip with the other children?”

“No. I’ve seen the goats.”

“What are you looking at?” 

She looked up at him from the old green volume, one of his own that he’d contributed to the library. They had only brought about four thousand printed books, but also had in electronic storage every book that had ever been digitized. He loved the printed books like Fiona’s mother had loved them, but every time he saw them he wondered about the weight and the space and whether they could’ve brought more people instead. But they needed a history. They needed a history and a culture to bring with them from Earth. Without those things they were flesh and bone and brain matter and excrement.

She showed him the page she was on.

Bergerac \`ber-zhɘ-,rak\. Commune, Dordogne dept., SW cen. France, on Dordogne river 25 m. SSW of Périgueux; pop. (1968c) 27,165; wine; 19th cent. Gothic church; captured by English 1345 and fortified; taken by French 1450.

Bergkamen \berk-`käm-ɘn\. City, North Rhine-Westpahlia, West Germany, 10 m. NE of Dortmund: pop. (1969e) 43,585; coal mining; chemicals.

I want a baby, Leah had told him.

They’d gone camping just after the call came, before the public announcement. They decided to go to the ocean. They were standing on a high rocky ridge surrounded by tall pines and he wished he could remember the scent of those trees. He could remember the way the strong wind barely moved them, but he couldn’t smell them anymore. He remembered the misty ocean droplets on his cheekbones, but he couldn’t remember the salty fish smell of the water. Intellectually he remembered how it smelled, but he couldn’t conjure the scent. It was there that Leah had found the piece of sea glass and pressed it into his palm.

He had held her tighter, feeling suddenly tiny, a molecule in a cavernous maw of unpredictable space. 

You’re mad, he had said. You want to watch it burn to death with everyone else?

An embryo, she said. We’ll send it with the others.

He remembered how her hair had twisted around his neck in the wind, but he couldn’t remember the smell of her hair.

Bodie Island

Bodinayakkanur

Bodkin Point

Bodø \`bō-,dɘr\. Seaport,  of Nordland co. N. Norway, ab. 100 m. SW of Narvik; pop (1970e) 28,545; trade center, shipping point for copper ore and marble; tourist resort with the midnight sun from June 1 to July 12.

“How can the sun shine at midnight?” Fiona asked.

“It depends where you are on the planet,” he said.

“You said it’s dark at midnight, just like they make it on the ship.”

“Not always. That’s not always true.”

She looked at him as if she was assessing everything he had ever told her, deciding fact by fact whether or not there might be exceptions.

“What is a tourist resort?” she asked.

“It’s a place where people visit.”

“Are we tourists?”

“No,” he said. “We’re refugees. We can’t go back home.”

They had argued for months about it and finally he agreed. He came to understand that it was Leah’s way of keeping herself alive, even if the government wouldn’t give her the golden ticket that would save her life.

Golden ticket. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He would make sure Fiona knew about the book and he would show her the film, the original. How much of what he knew culturally would be passed on to her, to the other children? Oompa loompa, doom-pa-dee do. I’ve got nothing at all to give you. All of the fragmented references would become nonsensical to them. They would make their own references and inside jokes. Their own proverbs and insults.

Put it where the sun don’t shine. No one of Fiona’s generation would understand the joke because now it meant put it anywhere.

Bodrum, a seaport. SW Turkey in Asia.

“What’s SW?”

“Southwest.”

“What does that mean?”

He pulled up the holographic globe of Earth and it gently rotated over the table. He stopped it and showed her. “You’re here. Anywhere. This is north. This is south, east, west. So, southwest. No matter where you are, if you go this way, it’s southwest.”

“Which direction are we going now?”

“We have a heading. Not a direction.”

He and Leah had planned to go back to that ocean ridge before the meteor struck, if it was safe to travel. They would go there and they would wait for the wall of fire to come and turn them into ash.

But the astrogeologist whom they’d chosen over him was diagnosed with terminal cancer five months before departure. When the phone rang, Leah knew before he said anything. She knew he had a place on the ship because she saw the joy in his eyes a millisecond before he masked it.

Boeotia, an ancient republic.

Boerne, a health resort in Texas.

Boeuf River, 200 miles long.

“How far is two hundred miles?”

“Far, if you walk it. It would take you a couple of weeks, at least.”

“I’ve walked around the whole ship. I’ve walked from one end to the other and back.” 

“That’s about two miles. You would have to do that a hundred times.” 

“I probably have.”

“Yes, you probably have.”

The government lied about when it was going to hit. They knew if they told the truth, there would be more chaos than there already had been. 

Borobudur or Du. Boroboedoer \bōr-ɘ-bɘ-`du(ɘ)r, ,bȯr-,\. Ruins of a great Buddhist temple, Central Java prov., Indonesia, ab. 10 m S. of Magelang and 18 m. NW of Jogjakarta; about 1000 years old, built of volcanic lava over a hill, with eight galleries of some 1500 exquisite bas-relief carvings and 430 life-size images of Buddha; rediscovered 1835; under government care.

Leah hadn’t wanted to say good-bye. She wanted it to be as if he was leaving for work. He had argued and protested with his superiors and had nearly lost his seat by demanding that they let Leah come along. But the first astrogeologist’s wife had Leah’s seat, and they wouldn’t force her off. 

Besides, the astrogeologist’s wife was a botanist, and Leah was a poet.

He looked again at all the books they had chosen to preserve and keep precious.

He spent hours looking at pictures. The ones he brought, the ones others brought. The billions that were uploaded into the central database. Millions of people that no one would ever know. Birthdays and drunken parties and weddings and other moments of Life on Earth. He looked in private, but they played a constant stream of them in the main passageway, a hall of memories. The children ran by without noticing the human wallpaper. He wondered what they would make of it all, when they grew up. In the common room they showed movies, they showed football and soccer games, historical newscasts and documentaries. What they had brought along with them was everything. What they had with them was their only chance to explain what Earth had been.

They put Leah on the waiting list, moved her to the priority list, but still seven people would have to give up their seats or die before she could get her seat on the ship. 

They knew it could happen. It was how he’d gotten his own seat, after all.

Boscobel \,bäs-kɘ-`bel\. City, Grant co., SW corner of Wisconsin.

“That’s where it hit,” Fiona said.

“Yes.”

“Why we had to leave.”

“Yes.”

People did die. One of the engineers, desperate to get his girlfriend on the ship, murdered a passenger. But they quickly found out who had shot him, and the engineer lost his seat. They gave the two empty seats to the second engineer on the list and her husband. 

Another passenger had a heart attack and died, and his wife gave up her seat. They gave the seats to the next two people on the waiting list. There were still five to go.

There were lots of vacancies, in fact, but they were for the children—the ones they hoped would be born. Planned to be born. They wanted to bring lots of embryos in case women had trouble getting pregnant in space. No one had ever tried it so they didn’t know what to expect. But it had to work.

Three more people died in a car crash on their way to flight training.

That left two.

Do you hate me? The botanist had said. It was months into the flight; they had avoided each other’s eyes that long. He saw her only in the science briefings, this widowed wife of the first astrogeologist.

I don’t, he told her, but seeing her face caused sparks of something to burn in his brain. If she had stayed behind on a dying earth with her dead husband, then maybe everything that followed could have been avoided.

Don’t you think I see him every time I look at you? she asked him. Don’t you think I see him wasting away every time I look at you?

Boscobel \,bäs-kɘ-`bel\. City, Grant co., SW corner of Wisconsin, on Wisconsin river; pop. (1970c) 2510; farm trade center; founding place of the Gideons, society of commercial travelers (1899).

“What was it like, when it came?” Fiona asked.

“I don’t know exactly. I was on the ship by then.”

“But you saw it. I heard you talking to mom one night.”

“She’s not mom. I told you.”

“But I grew inside of her.” 

“She’s your surrogate. That’s all. I explained about eggs. You came from your own mother’s egg. You have a mother. She died on the planet.”

“Yes,” Fiona sighed. “I know.”

He watched her eyes and saw that somewhere between yesterday and today Fiona had changed from a child to something very different from a child. Did anyone ever see it? That exact moment when it happened? 

“We were on the opposite side, already in space when it hit,” he told her. “But we saw the glow from the fires. We kept in contact with the people on the other side, as long as we were in range. And then we lost contact.”

“What did they say?”

He wouldn’t tell her that. He wouldn’t tell her how the people left behind pleaded for the ship to return, to let them send up just one more shuttle. How the people on the ship pleaded to go back.

“They were afraid,” he told her. “People were scared and lots of people died.”

She thought about this for a long time, staring at the same page in the geography reference book.

Boscoreale \bäs-kö-rā-äl-ē\. Commune, Napoli prov., Campania, Italy, at foot of S slope of Vesuvius near Pompeii; pop. (1968e) 19,655; important discoveries of antiquities have been made in vicinity.

“Why didn’t they build more ships?” Fiona asked.

A few months before the flight, he tried getting Leah pregnant. Pregnant women were given a few of the places that were reserved for the children. They saved many places for young girls, because once they reached childbearing age they could carry the frozen embryos.

Parents rioted for a chance to give up their only daughters, for a chance to get them on the flight.

“Where did they keep this ship? Where did it come from?”

“This ship? They built it in orbit.”

“So it never touched the earth.”

“No.”

“Like me.”

Boskoop \bȯs-kōp\. Commune, South Holland Prov., Netherlands, 2 m. NW of Gouda; pop (1970e) 11,600; famous for its nurseries of roses and other flowering shrubs.

There were lots of places on the ship to run around, to explore. It had been built to be child friendly. The library was for adults, but mature children like Fiona could go in. There were play rooms and classrooms, and the greenhouse room where the food was grown was another kind of learning center, where children could build their own salad farms. The livestock areas were often the most interesting, where the goats were milked and the milk taken to the dairy room where they made cheese. The children liked collecting eggs from the chickens and laughed when the rooster crowed and the little chicks were born. They liked watching the waste ejected into space.

Bordø, an island of the Faeroes (q.v.)

“Like where the pyramids were?”

“Not pharaohs. Faeroes.” He spelled it for her. “They’re a chain of islands in the north Atlantic Ocean.” He showed her on the ephemeral, rotating globe.

“They look so small,” Fiona said.

“They were.”

“You could get lost in the ocean,” she said. “You could get lost at sea.”

Yes, he thought. It happened all the time.

He thought about paying someone to kill the couple standing in the way of Leah’s seat on the ship. It was easy to get people to do things in the last days—there would be no prison, no consequences. Everyone had always come to the same end but now they were all coming to it at once, no matter who they were, and there was nothing they could do about it, and it unleashed some kind of collective Fuck You to social conventions and law. There were things that people did in the final days that they wouldn’t have imagined doing in normal times. 

He thought about it. He went so far as to make casual inquiries in an anonymous part of the city. 

But there were still consequences for people who had seats on the ship. If only he could be sure no one would trace the murders to him.

“How long is a hundred years?”

“Long.”

“Will you live another hundred years?”

“No.”

“Will I?”

“I don’t know.”

“Will I see the new planet?”

“Your children will.”

The botanist offered to carry the embryo that would become Fiona. He was ready to have a child three years into the flight, when his sorrow and guilt over Leah’s death had subsided enough that he could stand to look into a face that might resemble hers. When he asked the botanist why she wanted to do this, she had said, It’s the closest thing, isn’t it?

Borstal \bȯrst-ᵊl, `bōrst-\. Village near Rochester, Kent, SE England; site of Borstal reformatory (founded 1902) which pioneered the segregation of young offenders from mature criminals, and other reforms (Borstal system).

Boston Mountains, Ridge in Ozark Plateau in NW Arkansas; highest peak over 2800 ft.

“Tell me again, what is a mountain?”

“Something you climb. And it seems easy when you start but the longer you walk, the taller it seems to get.”

Bountiful \`baůnt-i-fɘl\. City, Davis co. N Utah, 8 mi N of Salt Lake City; pop. (1970c) 27,956; truck gardens; fruit (esp.) cherry orchards.

When he looked at Fiona now he saw how selfish he’d been, how selfish they’d all been. He would never tell her what people could turn into because she shouldn’t know that. She didn’t have to know that. She only needed to live her life and be happy. Maybe he would tell his grandchildren because by then everything that happened would only be a story, a long-ago memory of a time that never was.

“How many children will I have?”

“I hope a lot.”

“Will they remember Earth?”

“No. Only what we tell them.”

“We can give them this book. And you can tell them what you remember.”

“That’s all we can do.”

“We don’t have a home right now,” she said.

“That’s right. But we have each other.”

“And we have the ship.”

“Yes.”

“It’s taking us home.”

It turned out he didn’t have to kill anyone. Other people who were further down on the waiting list murdered people who had seats on the ship. More people got killed, more people were expelled from the ship. It happened so fast and so often that it was hard to keep track of who was going and who was dead. Leah had her seat and so did lots of other new people. Their joy was tempered by the mounting deaths, but they shared a quiet gratitude between them.

And then someone killed Leah to open up another seat.

Botwood \`bät-,wůd\ Town, E Newfoundland, Canada, 160 m. WNW of St. John’s; pop (1971p) 4109; has large seaplane base and 30 m. to the E is large airport, western terminus for transatlantic planes.

Bourem or Burem \bů-`rem\. Town, Mali, W Africa, on Niger river E of Tombouctou.

Who could he hate? He had contemplated doing to some other husband or wife the very thing Leah had suffered, that he had suffered. The murderer died on the planet, and so had billions of innocent people. Their flesh had burned away from their skeletons, their bones rendered to ash. The clouds that blocked the sun were filled with the dust of the dead.

“Is anyone left on Earth?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Maybe.”

“But it’s dark and cold,” she said.

“Everything’s dying.”

“Even the rivers?”

“Yes.”

“A river is skinny water and an ocean is wide water.”

How could he tell her more and make her understand? How could he make her know what a river really was? He could show her the map, the photographs. But the long grasses that lined the banks, the water bugs, the old fishermen in banged-up duck boats wearing dirty mesh baseball caps waving ancient rods that dripped spidery lines into the muddy water? Fiona had seen grass; they grew it for the goats. But she had never seen tall weeds spiking out of sandy bluffs, she had never felt them scratch her ankles. She had never rolled up her pant legs and waded into shallow streams, trying to scoop minnows into an empty spaghetti sauce jar. She had never tried to see the minnows through the camouflage of sunlight that floated on the tiny ripples made by her feet. She had seen the ocean in the documentaries and had an idea how vast it was, but she would never stand next to one, never know how much she would dwarf, how small she would feel, and incongruously how large she would feel when she danced to the power of the waves.

“That’s right. An ocean is wide and a river is skinny.”

“Why are you on the ship and not there? Why did you get to come?”

He took a long time to answer. 

“Just lucky,” he said.

“Am I? Am I lucky?”

Author's Note: Geographical information cited from Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Company, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1977, previous edition copyright 1972.

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Contributors

Nikki Kallio is a fiction writer and journalist who has worked in Wisconsin, Maine, and California. Kallio earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Goddard College, and her work has appeared in Pitkin Review, Minerva Rising, Midwestern Gothic, and Rawboned.

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