“So I suppose you want to ask me why I left town.”
Actually, Ian didn’t want to ask, but he was too busy to tell Maia otherwise. The 4 p.m. tour group was packed. As tour guide, he was excited to show everything that lay between the front doors and large cedar deck that ran across the back of his childhood home. It stood high in the suburban hills and overlooked the smoking crater that had been his hometown.
Ian and his customers weren’t interested in the recent past. They reached further back, grasping outdated furniture, artwork and knicknacks as signposts leading to their temporary escape.
“Wall to wall carpeting, in the popular oatmeal tones of the era. See how well it blends with the almond walls and rust upholstery?” Ian was proud of those cylindrical swivel chairs, basking in the light that poured through the huge picture window into the sunken living room, threatening to bleach the rust an innocuous orange.
Mom had given those away to some college girls decades ago but he had finally found them online, at auction. No price had been too great to piece together his childhood again.
“We were never allowed in here,” Maia murmured. She looked at the living room, with its matching octagonal coffee and side tables. A large supersonic stereo played yacht rock through the carefully preserved phonograph.
He shook off her gaze, leading his tourists carefully around the perimeter of the living room. He breathed a sigh of relief as they entered the kitchen with its ornate linoleum at their feet, the stark fluorescent rectangles above their heads. He admired the mini-greenhouse above the stainless steel sink, its shelves crowded with abandoned herbs and succulents, as useless today as they were when Ian was age 12 and berated for not watering the plants on the correct schedule.
An old woman in a roseate terry wrapper and worn slippers reached for the beige refrigerator doors with a sigh. She opened the freezer door, and relaxed as she saw its familiar contents: ice cream, frozen pizza, prefab hamburgers.
“I remember this!” she squealed. Her wizened fingers touched the frozen food, with a shiver the temperature couldn’t claim.
Ian beamed. He had bartered long with the local food warehouse, so scared of selling things beyond their expiration date. But Ian convinced them to not worry, because this inventory wasn’t consumed by mouths, but memories and minds.
They entered the living room,its huge rotating oak console TV displaying the current channel in two red digits. The white stone fireplace hadn’t held a flame in 50 years. White sofas faced the blank screen, and tasteful can lights illuminated the useless hearth.
Ian stepped forward, bringing his hands together, awakening the forgotten Clapper.
Pre-recorded MTV roared to life on screen. “Out of touch! Out of time!” the TV blared.
“We know this!” another old couple marveled, swaying to the robotic rhythm.
Maia glared. Ian laughed.
From the preserved patio, the tourists snapped pictures of the devastated town below. “You’re so lucky,” they purred. Ian nodded as they left.
Finally alone, he turned to Maia. “Dinner?” he offered.
He took her underground, through an entrance she hadn’t known. The stairs led to the playroom basement. He turned, opening a secret panel, then led her in. They ate in the bunker there, as post-apocalyptic dining requires.
At a card table, stranded in the darkness, silent. Plastic plates, warmed by a state-sanctioned microwave. They ate with their fingers; today, citizens could not be trusted with utensils.
Yet Ian imagined better, harmless meals of olden days that didn’t threaten danger.
As Maia choked down her meal, Ian rose, inspired to show her his greatest treasure.
It stood in his dead mother’s bedroom, glowing in the wake of the sunset filtered through the private patio door.
The mannequin stood there, smiling, beckoning with its white arms, dressed in Mom’s kimono. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Ian sighed.
Maia snorted, dashing it to the ground. “That’s not your mother.”
Ian ran to pick up the pieces, insert arm to shoulder socket, and arrange the black silk in a kind way as he looked up, beseeching Maia’s cold eyes.
“Come with me,” she said. She reached out her hand, an invitation to the real world that Ian ignored. “I know you don’t care why I left… But I came back for you. To free you.”
He refused. Maia left. Ian waited for the morning, when new tourists would praise his choices again.