‘Ah there’s another one,’ Jackie exclaims, her small hands taptaptap’ing on my large shoulder.
I grunt and hit the brakes.
We’re now stopped in the Shelter mobile recovery van next to a man leaned up next to a church under some palm trees, passed out amongst a few bottles, some black trash bags and various urban debris.
Jackie takes off her seatbelt and leans over me from the passenger seat to yell outside at him, ‘excuse me sir, do you want a place to stay tonight?’
He perks up but seems in a stupor mostly.
Jackie opens the passenger door as I’m still putting the van in Park and runs over. I crunch the handbrake on and calmly disembark after her.
‘There, there sir, we’ve got you now,’ I hear Jackie coo as she gets to the man. He is very drunk, just another Tuesday in Pacific Beach.
The air is only moderately smoky down here, tis the season after all. Thanks to the ocean for blowing it back, no wonder so much of our pickups are from down here.
The fires have been raging for decades, and each season there are less houses. More and more folks are just roaming the streets and sleeping in the still temperate climate of Southern California. There’s becoming so many that it’s not much use to talk about policing them, and the housing market just keeps building luxury condos and trying to extract high profits. So, entrepreneurs like Terrance, the Shelter founder, are stepping up to the plate with solutions for our fellow homeless citizens. Those high condo profits are doing something in the roundabout through the California Sheltering Hope fund that pays our bills.
I look over and chuckle a little seeing Jackie with our latest find.
Jackie loves fussing with these big infants. She’s cleaning him up helping him gather all his belongings. The whole time explaining what the Shelter is and how lovely it is there and asking him if he wants to go. I can tell he’s just kind of stunned, I see him nod his head a few times and gawk a little.
She hands him the old tablet we use as the contract, she scrolls through it for him as he pretends to read it, then she helps him press his thumb onto the reader to confirm that he is accepting The Shelter’s terms.
Jackie always moves so fast that very few people ever really hassle her back they mostly just kind of go along or wave her off, although I have had to step in a few times with a stun stick when the folks were on a different substance that sped them up.
It never seems to phase her though.
She’s the altruist, I just drive the van.
And keep the schedule.
I check my watch, 4:41p Tues 12/8/2037
We’re not going to make it back to the Shelter in time to get this latest guy a place before the staff goes home if we don’t hurry it up.
‘Yo Jack, we gotta move it, maybe leave some of his stuff, ya?’
Her face, which had been so sweet and tender to this dirty man, snaps to me with a wordless glare.
‘I’m not keeping the schedule!’ I squirm back, ‘you know how the Shelter works!’
She composes herself, hefts a bag of stuff she thinks he wants, helps the man up and they hobble toward the van.
I hit the button to open the back doors and Jackie slides him in and hands him his bundle of rubbish.
Then she gently closes the door, heads to the passenger side, gets in, closes her door and we’re back in Drive and off to the Shelter.
In the back, there is our latest find, along with four others. Many don’t want to go with us so they stay on the street, but the very drunk usually do, they seem to know that they really shouldn’t be responsible for themselves.
Thank god some know to trust us, Jackie would say; I just drive the van.
‘Good finds today,’ I attempt to make conversation, ‘sure these folks will enjoy the luxury of the Shelter, it’s been very cold!’ I keep my eyes on the road even though the driverAI is doing most of the work.
Jackie seems lost in thought, then I feel her turn to me.
‘We need to get more, Ted, we can’t just keep bringing a few at a time, every homeless person on Earth should be in the Shelter.’ Jackie gets so passionate, I have to be careful not to rub her the wrong way in these moments. ‘There’s just so many now, thousands roaming the streets,’ she continues ‘they don’t even form packs though, just booze up and live in depression alone, or even beat each other up, it’s horrible!’ Jackie is almost wailing on the ‘horrible.’
‘Well Jack, you know how it is, they have to agree to come...’ I say in my best minimizing tone.
‘I know,’ Jackie cuts me off, ‘but it should be different, this is a crisis, we need to change it!’ I feel her indignation, some part of me even shares it.
‘We’re doing good work Jackie, it’s helping.’ I offer, but she turns to look elsewhere and is lost in another of her realms of social justice inner angst.
I’m fond of her passion but I’ve also lived for a little as one of our back of the van folks, while Jackie is more the always-had-a-home type.
While Jackie thinks the homeless are suffering a hell on earth, I have experienced the appeal of glazing out your life in the open air with no systems to think about other than how to stretch your bottle until the next, hanging out with folks trading stories and good finds. There’s always at least two sides to every situation, but when you’re 22 that’s harder to see; when you’re double that it’s easier.
Onto the 5 and heading north to Encinitas where the Shelter is, we both stay silent. Through the dividing screen I hear one of our van catch cough something fierce out of her lungs and then settle back to a stupor.
We take the off ramp and wind through the industrial buildings and soon, there it is The Shelter. Looks like a warehouse because it is.
I pull up out front, put the van in P and crunch the parking brake on as Jackie is already out and heading to the back. She manually opens the van doors before I hit the remote button. I unclick my seatbelt and head back to help her.
We gather up our five once homeless soon to be Sheltered folks and shuffle them inside. A younger kid, Alex I think his name is? Comes out with a cart to grab their stuff.
The latest guy we just picked up is concerned about separating from his stuff, but Jackie calms him down with those gentle coos she saves for the unfortunates.
We all head through the front office door and Irma at the front desk greets us, we get everyone sitting in the chairs in front of the projector screen and Irma starts the show.
‘Welcome to the Shelter, your new home.’ A soft maternal voice attached to a computer rendered 3D angel coming out of the screen.
‘You are safe here, and you will find more joy than you have known.’ She continues as green fields show behind her and ample food at large tables dances, then beautiful little cottages and their interiors start to show.
‘You are soon to enter into a new land, one where you will not need your old things but instead will have anything you need. Don’t worry we will keep your old things here if you want them in the Shelter, but chances are you’ll forget all about them,’ and our Angel smiles so brightly that even my heart ticks up a bit.
Everyone is enraptured, no one more so than dear Jackie. Our Terrance did a good job with this intro, it really does cut through the haze of booze and smack. Although a few times I’ve had to stop a new guest from masturbating to our holy angel of the Shelter.
I’ve seen this presentation more times than I can count, so I head out to the van to check the back for any fluids left by our latest guests.
Looks clean so I spark up a little spliff and draw it in. All I would have needed to do is breathe the air around me really, I’m sure in all this fire air there are pot fields worth of spliffs, but old habits blah blah...
Each year they say fire season has peaked but we know it hasn’t. Fires inland, oceans rising, shit, sometimes I want to live in The Shelter.
Maybe that’s the real future...
I finish my spliff, grind it into the ground and head inside feeling better. Now is the part I like, when we get them to their new home so that I can go home.
Jackie already got them lined up and in their helmets, or ‘entrance crowns’ as the angel calls them, and Irma is nudging from the back. I take over for her so she can sit down and resume sipping her diet La Kroux and dissociating into her contact lens social feeds.
Alex, or whatever his name is, should be scanning the items for storage by now. This way they can still have their stuff in the Shelter, and we can re-sell what’s valuable to help pay expenses.
Our guests and us pass through the front room into the Entrance gate of the Shelter. The Door is just beyond, and Terrance himself is at the Entrance station ready to bring them inside. We’re still a startup, but business has been excellent with cities and municipalities all across the country clamoring to be the next beta site, so we’ll see how long our CEO and founder still does the entrance ceremony.
First up is our latest guest that we just pulled in, Jackie seems to have taken a special liking to him. She lines him up in the Entrance, which looks a bit like an old school metal detector, and walks him in, then has him wait. On Terrance’s monitor I see green indicators, ‘consciousness waveform identified, transfer compliant’ reads on the status. Green light on the Entrance gate and she guides him over to a chair in the room just beyond.
The line shuffles through the Entrance one by one, me pushing gently from the back.
I take the last one through, a woman who has more hair on her chin than teeth in her head and then we’re both in The staging room of the Shelter.
I help the last woman find her chair and now each guest is seated in a row of special chairs.
Where earlier many of their faces were perplexed, or grimaced or confused or sad, now they have changed, they are making it through, a calm bliss is on all of them now.
I check my watch and a small message says ‘transfer 97%98%100%’
All of their faces go slack in unison. The Transfer complete chime sounds.
Jackie sits down in the separate small chair for staff in the Shelter room, puts the control helmet on and I see her face go slack as she enters the real Shelter to show them to their new homes in the cloud.
I tap a button on the wall behind the guests and the Incinerator door opens up and all the chairs shake and then trundle along their conveyor belt to deposit the guests’ old bodies into the flames.
Lucky bastards really, I bet they’re already eating virtual cake in the Shelter.
Fractal Futures collection is live!
This is one of 19 original short stories, only a few ever seen before (thanks to my beta readers throughout the years)