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Spotlight: “Red Sea” by Amelie Butkus

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The following is a short story written by a Morro Bay High School student. It may contain mature language and themes which, for the sake of artistic integrity, have not been censored.

Red Sea

In all honesty, being a god wasn’t that big a deal.

No matter how big GAP marketed it, Samriah realized it felt no different than being a normal person. In fact she was normal, just a god in all other sense of the word, that being immortal, indestructible, and a certain amount of power at her fingertips that could be used for any sorts of morally gray circumstances. However, everyone in the GAP had them too, so it sort of balanced out. It wasn’t exactly Olympus.

She strolled down a blustery street, and stopped at a crosswalk modeled too the last drop of cats piss to a New York street corner. There were hobos here too. Immortal, indestructible, timeless, every one of them.

The flow of traffic paused long enough for Samriah to walk to the other side, the automobile sea parting before her as if she were Moses leading a host of desert weary believers out of slavery. The flowing beige coat she wore probably would have fit the part she thought wryly.

On the next avenue over, a grand marble columned building squatted in the middle of a large plaza. A stylish path dotted with youthful cypress trees led up to it. Samriah glided over it, her flat iron do and prophet’s coat casting a striking figure under an overcast sky.

An enormous pewter emblem, the size of a dinner table and shaped like a Canada coin boasted the GAP logo– a cliche thing–it was an hourglass turned sideways and stylized to also look like an infinity symbol. Samriah wrinkled her nose. Considering GAP had an infinity to go, they could’ve asked creative for something a little bit less like an overdone tattoo found on the midriffs of 2/3 of 22 year old college girls.

She sighed and ascended the marble steps into the building.

“Hey Attai!”

“Morning,” Samriah nodded a quick hello in Drake’s direction. He was busy at the large marble receptionists desk that dominated the lobby. He’d always been good at multitasking–scheduling the appointments for multiple Earth calls at once while simultaneously playing Snake in the peripherals of his HoloGlasses. His finger twitched slightly as he remotely changed the direction of the cartoon snake to face the direction of a shiny digital apple.

Samriah stopped and turned, a frown twisting her forehead. After a moments thought she switched course, heading instead for the receptionist’s desk. She strode directly to the front of the line, ignoring several halfhearted cries of complaint.

“Hey Drake.” She flashed him a smile. A rare and sought after thing in the office.

He did a double take. The snake in the corner of his glasses collided with its own tail and a backwards “Game Over” flashed across the corner. If he noticed, he didn’t flinch.

“Samriah,” he said, teeth baring themselves nervously, “Whats up?”

Conversations here were all deceptively casual. The youth hires were all like that, new to GAP, but the sense of unlimited time was all they’d known so it probably wasn’t much of a culture shock.

For her it had been different, but she wasn’t here to think about that now.

“I need you to fit me in today, sooner rather than later if you can,” she said. She kept her tone light but her expression was serious.

The boy at the desk blinked.

“Yeah sure, I can do that. I got an opening for around lunch if you want. 1:30 good for you?”

“For in person?”

His smile slid onto the immaculate floors.

“Uh, you didn’t file for clearance, and it says here the bus is maxed—-Ms. Attai.”

“Seriously. All the scientists in the world and they say they can’t afford to build one more goddamn metro? Listen, Drake, It’s important.”

He nodded as sagely as a nineteen year old could.

“Family problems?”

Samriah didn’t move a tooth.

“Sure. It’s been a hard week.”

“Still can’t get you a seat on a maxed bus though.” He said, absentmindedly clicking a 2005 mouse paired oddly with an analog computer fit around an intangible screen.

Samriah tried her second tactic, banking on the fact her status as head creative would get her chips in this frustrating game.

“Drake,” she said slowly, “you get someone off this bus, I’ll make sure you’re moved off reception.”

Drake’s smile moved up two molars. He clicked twice on the vintage mouse.

“Done!” He said proudly. “No take backs!”

Well that was quick. 

He stared at the screen. A sudden though twisting the corner of his mouth.

“You know what’s funny? That could’ve been a trip to see someone’s dying grandma down there we just canceled. Must be pretty important to you huh.”

Samriah didn’t see the humour in this.

“Everyone’s dying down there.” She said.

Who knew how they’d done it, but leading physicists, now the founders of GAP—of which Samriah found herself the Creative Head, had mixed up a batch of science and spun themselves a pocket dimension in time. It existed in eternity expanded over a single second. Telomeres stopped, but life went on, time progressing forward in the human perspective of things. It was the gap between time and space, consistently confused with the popular outlet-mall clothing brand, and it took getting used to.

But even with all this, craziest thing about it was how many people had stayed behind. A whopping twenty-five percent of 13 billion had elected to stay in their birthright dimension and live out the rest of their natural lives, effectively shattering statistics and causing huge rifts both economically and politically. It was Samriah’s job to patch that up as best she could, making Eternity sound fun in her little marble office in the marketing sector of GAP Headquarters.

She puttered through the day, mechanically green lighting a host of projects with the criminally subpar hourglass logo stamped on the back. Eleven crept by, then twelve. Finally, 1:20–

“I’m heading out,” she told the girl at reception. Drake had wasted no time clearing out. “Visitation.”

The girl nodded, checking a list only she could see.

A bright green check mark pinged on the right side of Samriah’s vision.

“Visitation authorization cleared. Samriah Attai.” Read the tiny subtext.

She nodded at the air and stepped into the elevator, pressing for the lowest floor.

The transport to and from dimensions was underwhelming. Sure the transport wasn’t—the entire bus looked like a pure white tube of lipstick strung up with blue LED lights like something out of Tron.

It was the whole bus thing. Samriah’d always wanted to teleport.

The telomere shortening was the next closest thing. It was an hour’s ride to the other dimension, and the feeling of time slowly speeding up on her body was a feeling akin to severe seasickness. Samriah popped a few pills and flicked night mode on her contacts. Immediately, the blue lit cabin went dark.

She’d shaved off a few vacation days on her annual Virtual Palm Springs visit, but it felt right, being here for more than a day, even if her age updated to three days older than thirty one.

Thirty one had been a good year to press pause it had seemed. Still young, but adult enough to be taken seriously. Samriah was happy with most of her decisions. Except this one. 

Seventy-two hours. She swiped into the hotel room on the top floor of the New York hotel. Large Bay windows surveyed the sweep of streets and tiny people, living out their time. 

It was much quieter here than the New York in the GAP. The streets were nearly empty. Good news for earth residents was that most places were up for grabs now that over half the populus had left on tron busses to eternity. The previously coveted two room apartments here were a dime a dozen, with penthouse suites going at rates a middle American would sneeze at. 

Samriah set down a beige travel bag that matched with her coat and flopped onto the bed, scrolling through her feed. An analog clock on the bedside ticked away at seconds that here were more than just place holders. 

The sun began to set. 

Samriah decided to get coffee. She felt exhausted, jet lagged. 

Bagel and hot chocolate in hand–she’d decided to sleep tonight–she’d made her place on a bench in Central Park. 

It was a cold evening. 

The park was orange and yellow and mostly abandoned. A solitary older couple strolled the trash strewn grass.  

Squirrels mated in the tree above, slightly ruining the peace.

Some vacation this was turning out to be. But this wasn’t a vacation, no matter how hard she pretended. Samriah’s stomach twisted. Suddenly she wasn’t hungry. 

She sipped the hot chocolate which was too hot and crumbled the bagel into small pieces, proceeding to throw them at the stupid mating squirrels instead of who she really wanted to throw them at–the old couple who could have had all the time in the world if they’d wanted to. 

A different sun rose over the balcony. Samriah, huddled in a plush bathrobe and sipping from a complimentary paper coffee cup, jolted as her temple buzzed. 

A tiny cartoon phone appeared in the air in front of her. 

“Sister Calling.” read the subtext.

Samriah nodded to accept the call. 

“Did you do it?” was the first thing Aesha said when she answered. 

Samriah stared into the street below. In the past hour only two cars had passed by. New York was a ghost town.

“Not yet. Can you blame me for procrastinating?”

Aesha gave a brittle laugh

“God Sami just rip off the bandaid—and get ahold of the phone yeah? They can build a decent AI with that kind of data.”

“I know for a fact she wouldn’t want that.”

On the other line, Aesha’s facade cracked a little. Her voice lowered.

“I’m not going back, Sami. Ever. I can’t. Does that make me a bad person? God.”

Samriah didn’t answer that question. Mostly because she didn’t know.

“I’ll call you when I’ve told her.” She said at length. She tapped her temple and ended the call.

Two Days Later

She wanted to run. Back to Central Park, to the highrise apartment that overlooked the empty city and stay there until the seventy-two hours was up. But that wasn’t an option anymore. She hadn’t left much time. Four hours. Twenty minutes really, to get the bandaid off, quick and clean and maybe get lunch before she boarded the bus again. She kidded herself that she would have the stomach for it. But Aesha hadn’t mustered the courage so it was up to her to do the good thing. To tell the truth. 

Samriah breathed deeply and stepped into her childhood home. Immediately the smell of spices, cumin, turmeric, thyme, overwhelmed her. The feeling of nostalgia sent her reeling and her appetite further decreased.

The parlor was empty, the sound of music and simmering food came from the kitchen. 

“Mom?”

The sound of a pan dropping clanged through the doorway. Footsteps pattered on plastic tile.

“Sami?”

Suddenly she was enveloped in a warm hug, forceful, separate from the pain that had marked their previous parting. 

“Hey mom.”

She said, smiling. Her mother was short and spry for older middle age. Her brown eyes were lively and full of emotion. 

She was led to a chair where a pepper of questions turned into a deluge. 

“I’ve missed you! how are you? How’s the job, I see they finally fit you in for a visit.”

She swore.

“Sixth months too, no consideration for families living apart. You look so big! I know, I know, you aren’t a day older than when you left.”

The mention of her departure sent a chill through the room. There was a silence.

“Yeah I’m head of creative now.” She said stiffly.

Samriah’s shoulder was squeezed affectionately. 

“That’s wonderful, baby! See that, I always told you, you’re good at what you do and they’d be crazy not to see it.”

“How’s grandma?”

Her mother shook her head. Samriah’s eyes widened.

“She hasn’t left yet?”

Her mother laughed.

“They say the bus doesn’t have room for all of her things, so she’s spent the last three weeks deciding between couches.”

Samriah cracked a weak smile. It didn’t take.

She sat stiffly at the table, knees high, her hands folded. She looked everywhere. At the fat buddha figurines in the cupboards, the evil eye pendant hanging on the doorframe, the doilies in a pile beside her. Anywhere but the other set of brown eyes across from her. Their last conversation had gone poorly, an argument that had resulting in Samriah breaking most of these things and Aesha leaving without a word. 

Eventually, Mrs. Attai noticed something was wrong. 

“What’s wrong Samriah, Where’s Aiesha.”

Samriah considered a lie but thought better of it. After all, mom wanted to live her truth right? Seize the bandaid. Rip it off. 

“She’s not coming. She doesn’t want to see you. She doesn’t want to remember you any differently than before we left.”

“What?”

“Mom, come on, is it about the house? Because I can get one, exactly like this, I can afford it now that I’m in charge of the department–”

“Sami…” her tone was unutterably disappointed.

“This is why you came back? To bring this up again?”

Samriah felt the anger splash back up from that old well.

“Look I just don’t get it. Is it principle? Is it faith? Are you gonna live nude in a forest until you die of pneumonia because that’s your choice?”

But even as she said it, she knew it wouldn’t make a difference. None of her arguments had even in the beginning. Her entire career consisted of convincing the general public that eternity was a great idea. How could she be failing in the only situation it really mattered? 

It hurt a little bit more when her mother handled one of the pewter statues and reiterated the words she’d said during their previous goodbye.

“Samriah. I am satisfied with the time I have been given. I want to see what is next. You know this.”

Samriah stood up. 

“Fine, you know what, It’s not about that anymore. I came to tell you, this is the last time I’m going to see you. I’m not coming to the funeral.”

The kitchen was quiet. Merry bubbling and hissing escaped half open lids. 

Why won’t you come live with us.” she said quietly. “Everybody’s already there mom, your sister, your cousins. Why do you just insist?”

 She couldn’t stop now, even if she’d wanted to, her voice raising in volume.

“Why do you want this? I don’t get it. I don’t get it! I don’t…”

Her shoulders dropped, she fell into the couch, looking nowhere but through the tunnel of sleek, flat ironed hair at her own two hands clenched together and turning white. 

“Where do you think you’re gonna go, mom? You’re the only one I have left.”

Another hand came into view, older, with brown delicate skin stretched over prominent knuckles. It rested itself on top of clenched hands.

“How much time do you have left on your visitation?” It asked.

“Two hours.”

“I just made stew,” she said  “I can pack some for the road.”

Two hours Later

Samriah stood in the brightly lit subway tunnel, waiting. A small Tupperware filled with broth and vegetables was held in both hands.

Soon, the familiar, slick, straight out of a low budget sci fi movie bullet train slowed to a soundless halt on magnetized tracks. She took a deep breath. In the presence of the bus, it felt as though her telomeres were already slowing in their tracks. 31 and now 72 hours more, years old. The doors parted soundlessly before her, and like Moses, she stepped through the gap.

The End

* * *

Though school is often acknowledged as a period of life devoted to academic and social activity, it is also, to many students, a time to embrace their own creativity, whether in class or at home. This is the case for Amelie Butkus, a senior at Morro Bay High School, who expresses her creativity in both writing and visual art. When asked about her creative process, Butkus described it as largely spontaneous: “I don’t think about it too much…I do it all in one sitting.” She elaborated, explaining that she is often surprised by the end result. 

While explaining her inspiration for Red Sea, she cited Netflix’s Black Mirror and Ray Bradbury’s novels as partial contributors, but maintained above all that her mindset was “what if I wrote a Twilight Zone episode?” She also mentioned that she made a distinct effort to capture “believable human emotion” through the short story. Butkus further described the work as being about “how we perceive ourselves in technology…once you strip away all the add-ons, you’re still a person who cares about their family.”

  Currently, Butkus is working on a novel, which she hopes to publish in the near future, as well as attempting to “launch a small business with [her] art” by generating demand and interest through apps like TikTok.

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