A Preview of Isolation
When I published Isolation And Other Stories, I set it to allow a preview of the first 10%. So you’ll be able to read about the first 5,000 words of the first story, Isolation, at (as far as I’m aware) any venue that sells it.
If you can see it there, there’s no reason you shouldn’t see it here. Maybe it’ll convince you to take a closer look, or even buy your own copy.
So without further ado, here’s your preview:
Isolation and Other Stories
By S. A. Barton
All stories copyright 2013 S. A. Barton
Original cover art copyright 2013 Erik Elliott, digital composition and lettering S.A. Barton
Find other stories by S.A. Barton on his Smashwords profile.
My canned goods weren’t delivered to the house: the beginning was that small. When I noticed, I was in the garden sipping coffee and ignoring the January snow melting into the grass under the dwarf willow. Face in my tablet, checking the email. We were not able to deliver to your primary address. Your order was successfully delivered to your secondary address beginning Box 1178-B at 9:42 AM Jan 14th. I snorted at their obvious incompetence. How can you screw up an order to an address your company has delivered to dozens of times previously?
Annoyed, I shifted on the little bench I had bought last summer to allow the radiant heater built into the awning to warm the other side of my face. As an afterthought, I checked my door settings from my phone, to make sure I hadn’t accidentally refused the order myself. The porch was still set, as always, to admit verified deliveries. Going one step further for curiosity’s sake, I checked my address for hits. There were a dozen inquiries, from 6:00 AM to 6:08 AM. It looked like the mailbot had tried to deliver, how had it not found the house? Not only had I never had the mailbot fail to deliver in the six years I’d lived here, I’d never even heard of anyone else having a problem like that either. If you were on the map, you were on the map. Period.
I shrugged, got up to get dressed. My grocery delivery company was off the hook for whatever had happened. I’d need to leave early if I was going to stop by my PO box on the way in to work. Either that, or go without coffee tomorrow since I’d brewed the last of it this morning. I didn’t go into work often, an editor can work from home for the most part. But no technological advance has yet replaced the simple human desire to see—in real, live person—who he’s working with once in a while. I wondered if I should spend the time to figure out where to direct an email to notify the post office of a malfunctioning bot. I decided not: there was no way to miss such a thing, I thought. They had to know already. I prepared to leave instead.
Freshly showered and shaved, I got into the car with a pair of Danishes in hand and waved my apricot-glazed finger through the ‘home’ icon, then through the ‘workplace’ icon. My route set, I held my arms free of my body as the safety restraint arm extended itself across my waist and diagonally across my torso, then set breakfast down on a napkin on the work tray. The car drove itself smoothly down the driveway. It turned right instead of the usual left, and I looked up, startled. Left headed out toward town. Right ran along my property line and dead ended in a little dirt turnaround where my fence ended. Sure enough, my car drove itself to the end, turned around smartly, and returned to the driveway. It pinged, and its neutral tone said, “Route unavailable. Please remap your destination,”
With the car idling, I brought up a mapping site and fiddled with it for awhile. After cycling through several views and magnifications, I realized it depicted only the dead end to the right, but no connection with the road on the left. The connection showed on the physical satellite’s eye view, but it didn’t exist on the map level. I made a mental note to find their customer service address and fire off an email—as soon as I was safely on my way. I brought up a competing map site. Same problem. Another map site. Identical. At least the car could handle going home; I let it drive the few meters back into the garage, went inside. I slumped down on the couch and brought up my videoconferencer. Straightening up and looking carefully into the primary camera rather than the co-workers’ images on the screen, I began my apologies.
I wasn’t worried. This would easily be sorted out. After the meeting, I tracked down the customer service addresses of each of the top three mapping sites and fired off emails to them. I spent the rest of the day catching up on work.
Five days later, I was beginning to worry. Two of the three mapsites I had emailed had escalated my problem to an actual human handler. Perhaps a random human in a megalithic call and email center working from canned script responses, but still a human being. Between work and followups to my complaints, I tried the car a couple of times daily in case the problem resolved itself. Stubbornly, it refused to do anything other than run down to the dead end to the right and back. Another delivery, this time of socks and a fresh pair of casual shoes I had ordered the week before, was rerouted to my PO box. I was out of milk, coffee, and fruit, but was afraid to order them from the grocery store. I didn’t want them to end up rotting and stinking up the PO box if this problem persisted. Living out beyond the fringes of the suburbs in a quiet rural area, walking to the store wasn’t an option. To the north and east, there was a national forest stretched wild and attended only by bots for at least twenty kilometers. To the west was a broad lake, and although I had a dock on that side of the property I did not own a boat. South, the nearest house was a summer home owned by an older couple. They were never there between the end of September and the beginning of May. It was two kilometers away, and the next property was three kilometers farther, a small private retirement home with high fences and bot security.
The place I ordered most of my food from was thirty kilometers away and I had never been there in person. I didn’t know if it was a faceless warehouse or if it was an actual storefront you could walk into. It probably wasn’t a storefront. Those usually existed only in very poor areas where everyone walked or used public transport, or in very rich enclaves as social and nostalgic community meeting places. Everyone else shopped online. Finding out which variety my supplier was didn’t seem practical. My car had no manual controls. Nobody’s did unless they were offroading enthusiasts, and even then manual controls wouldn’t function except in designated areas. I didn’t own a bicycle. I couldn’t imagine walking thirty kilometers to the nearest town. Nobody did that sort of thing except a few exercise eccentrics and back to nature nuts. I could imagine walking two kilometers, to the neighbors’. Except I didn’t have their emails to ask them to set their security to let me in. I didn’t even know their names. It was nothing personal, I hadn’t deliberately avoided them. It simply had never occurred to me to go out there and introduce myself. It wasn’t unusual, most people didn’t know their neighbors. You knew people from places you drove to in order to meet people, or to work with them.
I sat down and began drafting an email to my coworkers and superiors outlining the situation so they would understand my new and hopefully temporary ecommute status would extend indefinitely, that I had no idea when it would be resolved. I was powerless.
Day fourteen is when I began to seriously worry. Uncoincidentally, it is also the day I used the last of the laundry detergent. I had never before considered that there might be a correlation between a calm state of mind and the presence of clean socks and underwear. As I started the wash cycle without soap, reasoning that agitation in clean water would be better than nothing, my body began to itch at the thought of wearing not-quite-clean clothes.
Reflecting on the less fussy state in which the majority of the people in the world lived, I felt like a whining baby of immense proportions. But no amount of reflection upon my relative privilege could persuade my rear end not to itch at the thought of tainted boxers touching it.
Dinner was canned sardines, crackers, and raisins. Water from the tap completed the ensemble. I was saving the tea for mornings, rationing myself despite the fact that I probably had 300 assorted teabags in the house. The mind does strange things at the prospect of doing without what it is accustomed to. That understanding, though, did not free me to use a precious teabag to flavor my evening glass of water.
As I lay down to sleep I mentally reviewed the list of people I knew, considering which of them I might persuade to drive to the nearest mapped road with a care package of groceries. Mentally, I reviewed the list of people I knew—co-workers, acquaintances made in the writing world, my lawyer—did I actually have friends? I had always thought of myself as having many friends, but everyone I could think of were just people I talked to in the course of work. Any friends I had were far in my past now.
I closed my eyes and sighed. Tomorrow I would find out if I could make a friend at this late date. Or at least talk an acquaintance into a delivery.
Day fifteen. Cloudless, with the glare of a naked sun rebounding from a thin layer of fresh snow. It was so bright, in fact, that I didn’t notice the electricity was off until I left my sunny bedroom for the dark hall. I moved through the house, manually opening all of the drapes against their stiff, still motors to let in light and whatever warmth the sun could provide through the glass. The house was eerily quiet, with the myriad fans of the ventilation system, multiple computers, and the refrigerator silent. The omnipresent television, internet, and radio voices were absent. The only sounds left were my footsteps and breath. The tick-tick-tick of the slow expansion and contraction of the house’s timbers seemed unreasonably loud.
I had to fight the urge to whisper as if I were in a library or cathedral as I used my phone. I was suddenly conscious of its battery—what had the user manual said when I bought it, was it good for thirty-six hours on a charge? More? Less? I never looked, I just put it on charge every night.
Why the hell had I never installed solar panels and a house battery? Tax credits paid for those. But as long as I had been here, I’d simply had the wealth to be comfortable, to pay for instant service of my needs. Installing those things would have been an inconvenience, and I had enough money not to care if my electric bill was a thousand dollars instead of a quarter that. It was too late for kicking myself to do any good now, but I did it anyway.
A sudden human replaced the electric company’s hold music. I reported my outage and got a rude shock in return.
“I don’t show that address in our service records, sir.” I asked why the hell—pardon me, sorry to be rude—why in the world not? I’ve lived here for six years. “Please hold while I research that,” she said, leaving no room for a reply in that brisk call center way, and the hold music was back. I read my email on the phone while I waited. More news from the two map services that actually employed humans. Automated remapping of your area has failed to resolve your issue. We are working with your state, county, and applicable locality to arrange a manual remapping and will update you as progress occurs. Both emails were identically worded. Were the two mapping sites two heads of the same corporate hydra? Were all of them? I wondered, but had no way to seriously investigate, and no idea of what to do with the information if it was true.
And ‘as progress occurs’ was a remarkably passive way to describe me waiting out in the snowy country, wondering how long it would take for the inside of my house to assume the frigid temperatures outside my house. An inoffensive phrase. Offensively inoffensive, it seemed to me. Left with free-floating annoyance and nothing to do with it, I went to bed early.
In the morning, I discovered that the answer to my question of how long it takes the inside of a powered-down house to assume ambient temperature is ‘pretty damned quickly’. My breath steamed in the pale dawn light. Frost rimed the inside of the bedroom windows, condensed from my sleeping exhalations. I cursed my lack of foresight as I went through my drawers wrapped in a blanket. Why hadn’t I thought to sleep in my clothes? After much rummaging I found what I was looking for, a set of long thermal underwear left over from a skiing trip four or five years ago. They were tighter than I remembered, but they fit. I dressed myself in layers against the cold, then padded through the cold house and added the sparse remnants of my pantry to the bottom of a heavy leather backpack bought for the same skiing trip and never used since. I filled the top half of the backpack with an old wool blanket, then went out to the garage for my heavy winter coat and boots. It took ten extra minutes of fiddling with the backpack straps to figure out how to adjust them so it would fit over the puffy coat and the layers underneath. Sitting on the wooden steps that led down from the kitchen into the garage, I looked back into my home, swung the door shut, and sighed.
I couldn’t wait in the house any longer. It couldn’t take too long to walk the thirty or forty kilometers into the city and set up housekeeping in a hotel until things got straightened out. I dropped the backpack into the passenger seat of the car and drove down to the end of the driveway, feeling silly for using it to travel only a hundred meters. It was less about the saved walking, and more about my reluctance to leave the house behind. It was a symbol of security. It should still be secure. It wasn’t fair that it wasn’t warm and lit, that it didn’t have food in it anymore, that it wasn’t my refuge. And a car… well, a car is sort of a small house on wheels, isn’t it? A safe capsule to take you from home to where you want to go and back again without having to deal with anything that’s along the way. I didn’t want to leave either behind. I sat in the idling car at the end of the driveway, the heater running full blast, looking out over the cold and snowy landscape. I could turn around, wait just one more day in the house to see if it would all be fixed in the morning.
But I wasn’t going to do that. My mind had really been made up the moment I saw my breath steaming in the cold morning light, in my bedroom. I was going to walk until I had a heated bedroom and a hot shower. And a meal that wasn’t sardines and crackers. I got out of the car and told it to return to the garage. I watched it drive itself back, the garage door open, swallow the warm, safe car, and close. I wished I hadn’t run the heater. The wind felt like the breath of a Biblical Hell after the automotive sauna. I stepped out into the snow and made my way across the nearest field toward the woods that ran along the main road not far away. I didn’t look back.
After ten kilometers over hills and through roadside thickets, walking parallel to but not on the road I took into the city when I went to work, I turned and made my way a little deeper into the woods. A couple of dozen meters back at the start of what I guessed might be a deer trail, I found a log to sit down on. It was in the lee of a thicket, out of the gentle but chilling wind. I had been staying clear of the road to avoid trouble with the police—walking on a roadway was illegal if there was no sidewalk there—but now I was starting to think that attracting their attention might be a good idea. I was getting tired.
Crunchy nuggets of snow crusted my boots and the leather was beginning to feel clammy from their moisture working in and the sweat dampening my socks working its way out. The soles of my feet ached and my toes were numb. My face felt raw and hot with windburn. My eyes stung from the glare of the sun on the snow. A strong headache was rising up from the nape of my neck. My shoulders were beginning to hurt under the weight of the backpack, even though it wasn’t much. My lower back was starting to complain.
Sitting, I stretched out my legs and dug my phone out of my pocket. 5% charge. Great. I checked the GPS.
3,875 meters from home. Less than four kilometers, not the ten I had guessed. Twenty-six to go, not twenty. I looked up at the sun through the bare limbs of the trees. I’d be lucky to make it much beyond the halfway point before dark at this rate. Or I could just go out to the nearest mile marker on the highway (funny, that we measure distance in kilometers but still have mile markers. Tradition, I supposed) and call the police for help.
If they didn’t see me walking out on the road first. It’s time to stop screwing around. I’m in actual trouble here, I thought.
“Nice phone,” someone said behind me. Oh, shit. I made myself look over my shoulder, put on the sketch of a smile. I saw… a long-needled pine, snow-heavy boughs drooping. I started to look the other way.
“Down here.” I reluctantly, awkwardly turned myself on the log, throwing one leg over and straddling it. A powder-blue knit wool cap, stained and dusted with pine resin and snow, protruded from among the lowest branches. A young, dirty face sprinkled with sparse stubble peered up at me. “It’s warm in here if you want to come in and rest,” he said.
“I’m fine,” I replied, more harshly than I’d intended. He crawled out, unfolding himself into a tall form that was lanky even in sweater and quilted coat and two pairs of jeans, the second peeking out black through the holes in the overlying blue pair.
“You lost? Broke down?” His eyes wandered as he spoke, resting only lightly on mine before shying away.
“I’m trying to walk into the city,” I said, standing up. “I still have a long way to go. I’d better get going, thanks.” I added a nervous chuckle without thinking, then wished I hadn’t as I realized how awkward it sounded.
“I’ll come with you. Been here too long anyway,” he said, and ducked back into his shelter. I wondered if I should just start walking, try to leave him behind. I didn’t want company. Not the company of someone who lived under a tree, at any rate. I imagined myself walking away briskly, him jogging to catch up, me—what? Breaking into a run, leading him through a dramatic twenty-kilometer chase scene, slogging through the snow in slow motion? Ridiculous. And the young man didn’t seem dangerous, just odd.
Hoping I wasn’t wrong, I waited for him. He emerged with a battered ActionTube backpack, sporting the face of the host of a show pitched to kids half his apparent age. One strap was mostly replaced with cheap, stiff braided nylon rope and the outermost zipper picket hung uselessly open like a dangling tongue.
“How far are you going?” I asked as we walked back toward the road.
“All the way in,” he said. “It’s getting too cold here. I can sleep in the subway in the city. Nice and warm.” He rubbed his gloved hands up and down his ribs, visibly imagining being warm. As the road came into view he balked. “Thought you were walking,” he said, standing just one rank of trees short of being in full sight of the blacktop. “You got a car? Give me a ride?”
“No, my car is… kind of stuck at home. I’m walking.”
“Cops’ll pick you up on the road, then.”
“I’m cold and tired. I’m kind of hoping they will.”
“If you have a home maybe that’s good. Maybe they take you back to it. If you don’t it’s better to stay out in the cold,” he said, face looking like he’d bitten into a lemon.
“Well, I do have a house. I think I do.”
“That’s a funny thing to say. Seems like something you should know one way or the other.”
“Yeah,” I grunted, distracted by an ugly fear that suddenly grew in my gut, sudden as a summer thunderstorm. I had been sure my groceries would arrive. Sure my car would take me to work. Sure the appropriate authorities would resolve my problems when I reported them. Maybe it was time to stop being sure of things. Maybe it was time to doubt. I pulled out my phone again, searched the net for my address. No result. Did you mean… and a list of similar addresses in nearby counties and states appeared. I pulled out my wallet, got out my credit and debit cards. I called the customer service number on one of them, navigated the automated menu to get a human on the line. My nameless companion waited patiently.
The account was canceled, linked to a nonexistent address. Why yes, the call-center drone read from a script, we can reinstate it. Just go online and fill out a reinstatement request with a valid address associated with your name, and within ten business days… I hung up.
Second card, canceled, same story. Third card, the same. The phone’s low charge alert set up a slow, steady beeping in my ear as I dialed my bank to check my debit card, my fourth and last. Your account is flagged for review but still active, sir. I breathed a steamy gust of relief out into the chilly air, and asked a question. Yes, we can maintain your account with a PO box as the address of record for up to 90 days at your request. It’s an acts of providence clause to help out customers through troubles beyond their control. He walked me through a series of security questions, recorded my voice authorization, and made the address change.
I thanked my lucky stars that I paid the PO box rent by the year and got off the line. 2% charge. I turned the phone off and put it in my pocket. I might still need the one call that little bit represented.
It changed nothing about my situation. I was still kilometers from anywhere. My financial resources were, in fact, less than I had suspected with the demise of my credit accounts. I was still cold and still tired. But somehow, having verified that I still had resources, still had hope, I felt energized. I started walking again, this time parallel to the road instead of toward it. After a few steps, I angled a little deeper into the woods. My lanky companion was soon beside me.
“So, what’s your name, since we’re traveling together,” I asked after a while.
“Travis,” he said, and added, “it’s my daddy’s name.” As if the statement was a part of his name.
“I’m Richard, Travis. Why do you live out here?” He gave me a long look, blinking, his feet automatically avoiding the roots and deadwood as easily as mine found them and stumbled over them. Another couple of dozen paces passed with only the crunch crunch crunch of boots in snow.
“My daddy’s dead,” he said finally, his voice flat. “So is my momma. So am I. We were in an accident, and they really did die. The hospital just messed up my paperwork.”
“That’s awful. Did you try to get them to fix it?” Just a couple of weeks ago I would have been unsympathetic. Civilization demands paperwork and procedures. You fill out the forms and follow the rules because they’re part of the price you pay for an orderly society. You follow regulations and pay your bills, and everything is okay. But I had filled out all the forms, followed the rules and regulations, paid my bills. And I was out in the woods in the snow with a backpack full of odds and ends, with a wallet full of dead credit cards and a phone on 2% charge. With a dark and cold home far behind me, that should be lit and warm, with me in it having a nice cup of tea.
I waited for Travis to explain, my mind reluctantly and resentfully open.
“Yeah, I did,” he said. “Half the forms I couldn’t even fill out because I was only fifteen. The other half wanted my address. I didn’t have one anymore. They couldn’t even put me in foster because I was officially dead. ‘Wait,’ they kept saying. ‘Maybe next week.’ Got tired of the shelter. Got tired of filling out the same forms every week. Stopped going after a while. They can’t fix it and I’m done having office people lie to my face about it.” By the time he finished his short speech, his cheeks had bloomed bright red and I could see the muscles bunching in his jaw. I walked along with him for a long time, no sound but the puff of our breath, the crunch of the snow, the call of the occasional bird, and the distant whoosh of the odd vehicle passing on the highway.
I walked slow and steady, but my mind churned. Was it really that easy to fall through the cracks? Maybe it is, I thought. It had been that easy for me, and I was an adult grown uncomfortably near to middle age. He had been just a kid—still was, really—and it would be easy to miss something, miss out on the help he needed to correct the records.
But if he had been working with the foster care system, professionals would have been helping him. People who knew the system. It didn’t make sense, but my situation didn’t either. I had no answers for him, so I held my silence. When night fell, we took shelter under the low natural tent of the lowest branches of a snow-blanketed pine tree. It was surprisingly warm with two human space heaters, and the carpet of fallen needles underneath was surprisingly deep, soft, and pleasantly fragrant. I fell asleep quickly, while still wondering how I would manage to relax enough to fall asleep.
In the morning I slowly uncurled from my piny nest. Rested, I felt the itches and scratches of the dry needles and twigs that I had not noticed the night before in my exhaustion. My back crackled its protest and my knees threatened to stay bent as I struggled upright. Travis, used to walking all day and sleeping on the ground, recovered much more quickly.
We took turns relieving ourselves behind some nearby bushes, and I gave thanks that Travis carried ‘toilet paper’—actually napkins, one to a customer to make the supply last. Squatting down was painful. My knees popped on the way down and again on the way up, loud. We shouldered our packs, breakfasting on a tube of my crackers. It was slow going. I hobbled like an old man, bent and limping, my feet sending a wave of pain up my legs with every step.
After a couple hundred painstaking meters, I flopped down on a fallen tree without bothering to clear the snow.
“If you keep sitting on down on logs without checking, you’ll get snakebit sooner or later,” Travis said.
“Screw the snakes,” I said. “This is useless, Travis. I’m practically crippled, I hurt so bad.” I rocked in place, the ice crystals crackling under my big aching ass.
Travis shook his head. “No, you’re not.” His eyes narrowed. Anger, disgust, pity? All three?
“I was slow yesterday. Today I can barely move. We could walk like that all day and we won’t get halfway to civilization. Everything hurts.” I slumped down, elbows on knees. My spine and neck gave me a bolt of pain when I tried to lower my face into my hands to cry. I straightened up with a gasp and then froze in place, afraid a wrong move would bring on a cramp or spasm that would lay me out in the snow.
Travis watched me for a moment, then reached his hand out slow and calm. He bunched up the front of my jacket in his gloved fist and pulled, not hard but strong and steady, hauling me easily to my feet. He was stronger than he looked. Much stronger. He pulled me toward him until we were nose to nose, the steam of his breath weirdly hot and cold on my face in the chill of the morning.
“You can walk,” he said, words low and clipped.
“Barely.” I tried to back away. He pulled me even closer. The tip of his nose touched mine.
“Because you won’t do it, that’s why you can’t.”
I felt my jaw bunch, my teeth grind.
“Fuck you!” I screamed in his face, and shoved him away hard. His hand came loose from my jacket and he gave a step back, but not more. “I’ve got a house I can’t use, a car I can’t ride in, food I can’t eat!” Still shouting, I came after him and he backed away, his eyes on mine.
“You still got more than me,” he said easily. Dismissing me.
“Don’t you understand? I’m screwed,” I said, now not chasing but following step by step as he backed away. He avoided the trees like he had eyes in the back of his head. “I have everything and I can’t touch it. I’m somebody, and I’m out here like…” I stopped. My voice and my steps both at the same time. Travis stopped too, and his brows lowered, narrowing his eyes even more, to angry slits.
“Out here like a nobody? A nobody like me?”
So there’s your preview, and I hope you enjoyed it enough to follow this link, see the blurbs for the other stories, and find out where to get your own copy.