“Best Home on the Worst Street” by C.H. Pearce

In her ComfortPod, Nora has everything she needs. She can lie in her bunk—on her back, on her right side, left side, or on her stomach—to read. She can hook herself up to the immersifilm headset to explore limitless worlds and possibilities, singly or in multiplayer. She hasn’t done that yet, and never will, limitless worlds and possibilities being what they are. Her favourite immersive experience is almost embarrassingly modest. She likes to walk a sun-dappled forest beneath tall trees with Mr. Pale and Ms. Grimes from work. Many woodland animals walk the forest floor and there are birds and insects singing and chirping, all of them to Nora’s understanding extinct. 

Only not tonight, as it’s past 11 pm, and Nora likes to get her eight hours before her virtual commute. The immersion makes her wakeful. She replies to Pale and Grimes in the group chat and they say they understand, and they will walk alone tonight. 

Nora does need the bathroom. That’s the downside of a streamlined capsule home: no facilities. It’s not safe outside in New London, especially at night. The air is hot and thick with smog, and both are cumulatively damaging, and the people who survive in it are more immediately damaging, potentially, because they are just that–survivalists. Scavengers, enterprising salespeople, and the merely very violent, roaming either individually or in gangs. Nora is proud of her ingenious method of circumventing the necessity to ever leave the ComfortPod at all, although she doesn’t tell Pale and Grimes, because she understands not everyone has that kind of money. 

There’s a chamberpot under her bunk which she pays a girl to empty. Every morning at eight o’clock, Nora slides the chamberpot out the tray-hatch, the one where the meals she orders on CleanEats slide in. The girl outside in the polluted streets of New London swaps it for a clean one. Nora transfers the money to the girl’s business account, which the girl calls CleanPod–Nora can’t help but admire her ambition–and rewards her additionally with a tip. The amount she tips increases steadily, so steadily she almost doesn’t notice, in line with her affection for the girl. 

Nora hasn’t opened the big hatch, the exit hatch, in six years. The girl’s name is Maxine. It took Nora two years to work up to asking it. 

Maxine has a nice smile, under the grime. She has long, unruly hair and looks tired and pinched. She tries to appear neat by rubbing her grimy face, tying back her hair, and affecting a janitor’s uniform of sorts from pieces she has scrounged and mended imperfectly: it does not work, but the effort is noticeable. She is never not visibly perspiring, little beads of sweat adorning her forehead and her upper lip like dew on leaves in the immersifilm forest. Her hands leave sticky prints on the new pot and the ceramic comes in burning hot from outside temperatures before it cools, rapidly, to the pleasant ambient temperature of the air-conditioned ComfortPod.

Maxine has three other girls and a boy that work for her, now, all climate displaced urchins slightly grubbier and younger than herself. But on occasions when Nora sees one of their hands through the hatch instead of Maxine’s, her heart skips a beat and she forgets to add a tip because she wonders if this means Maxine is dead. It is never death, of course: instead, as Nora finds out the next morning after a fretful and distracted day and night, it is only a minor illness, a scheduling conflict, a personal matter.

Nora’s fingers grip the hatch very tightly when she hears the sound of footsteps approaching at 7:59. Lately she takes delight in flipping open the hatch exactly as Maxine’s hand is hovering over it, in order to hear Maxine shriek with laughter until she devolves into coughs like a habitual smoker. Maxine doesn’t smoke. The hot air blasts in through the little hatch, briefly opened, and the smog permeates long enough to remind Nora of exactly what she’s missing. 

“You’re lucky to work from home, Miss,” Maxine tells her. 

C.H. Pearce is an Australian writer and artist who always comes back to her first love of weird dystopian stories. She lives in Canberra with her partner, child, and pet rats, and works in records management. Her stories have appeared in Aurealis Magazine, Award Winning Australian Writing 2016, and the CSFG Publishing anthology A Hand of Knaves. She’s working on more short stories and her first novel. Find her online at chpearce.net or connect on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.