“So now what?”
While harmless enough, the question seared into the man’s mind and stung him at his very core. Both men stood in the dusky expanse of fine white sand in between the neatly organized white cubes, the small, wooden shelf half-buried in the sand as if it were being reclaimed by nature. The few worn wood screws that had secured it to the cube were pointed skyward, ensconced in drywall and splinters. The first man crouched down low, elbows jabbing into his thighs and his chin pressed into his folded hands, carefully studying the small shelf.
“I guess I’ll just put it back up.”
“But won’t it just get knocked off again? You know, when the cubes shift.”
“Probably,” he pulled the smooth shelf out of the sand, each grain cascading gently back to its home while he helped brush them away with reverence.
“I don’t get it, man.”
“What don’t you get?”
“The cubes shift every night, right?”
“So,” the second man let out a sigh, “why bother when you know it’s going to get knocked off like that?”
“Because it’s mine.”
“Alright, well,” he looked up at the sun while it receded over the horizon of identical white cubes, “looks like it’s getting pretty late, I gotta eat my rations before they spoil and clean up. You gonna, you know,” he nodded at the shelf.
“Good luck with that, then,” he laughed before disappearing into his own cube across the way.
“Yeah,” with the small shelf in hand he retreated to his own cube, the recessed door sliding open to allow him back in to his bright, white cube with similarly blinding white decor: a white cot, table, sink, toilet and shower stall, with neatly packaged foodstuffs inside of their plain, white labels. Without letting go of the tiny shelf, he leaned down and searched under his bed, pulling out a small red box that had once housed his checkbook. Inside there was a small yellow-handled screwdriver and a few screws of assorted lengths and widths.
The ones still inside of the shelf should be enough to keep it in place for a while, which was a relief considering how low his supply had grown as the days dragged by. They had all been bartered for, acquired from different cube neighbors early on who had held onto small pieces of themselves as well, but had fallen into disrepair. The three screws inside of the wood slipped out effortlessly, him turning them softly in his fingers to work some of the detritus free before he’d mount it back on the wall outside of his cube.
Outside the setting sun gave off a pink hue, in fact the only dissident color in a sea of pure white oppression. The light bathed all of the white surfaces in different shades for its different phases, which helped to frame his minute act of individuality. Granted, in the face of the shifting cubes grinding against each other in the dark of night before reaching their temporary resting place somewhere in the giant grid that none of the inhabitants had ever seen an end to, pinning a shelf to the wall was an exercise in futility. Yet it didn’t stop him, night-in and night-out from affixing it to his wall, marveling at it and waking up the next morning to start the process all over again.
“Just like you said,” the second man re-emerged from his cube, freshly-washed and still damp from his shower, “here you are, screwing that thing into the wall. Here’s a thought…”
“Inside the cube, right?”
“Yeah, I mean, why not, at least it wouldn’t fall off.”
“I like it on the outside.”
“Sure, but it’s gonna fall off. It might even break.”
“This is where it goes, though, or at least where I want it.”
“Don’t you ever get the feeling that they don’t want you to put anything on the outside of these things?”
“Yes,” his knuckles turned white gripping the small screwdriver, twisting into the hard wooden exterior of the cube that had been repaired every night, “but I don’t really care.”
“You need a hand with that?”
“Sure,” he said, not really needing help considering how many times he’d screwed the shelf into the same basic spot, but these rare instances where there was a connection with a cube neighbor had to be taken advantage of to help counterbalance the deafening silence of most days.
The two men stood in the setting sun, the first with his screwdriver while the second held the small shelf in place, both murmuring about keeping it level and if there was value in trying to find a stud or not while mounting. The physical makeup of the cubes were a mystery in and of themselves. Outward appearances made them look sleek and made from space-age materials, but every time the first man dug a screw into it they melted right through the surface like they were simple sheetrock or wood paneling.
“That’s that,” the second man dusted his hands off while standing back, admiring their handiwork.
“Yeah, thanks for the hand.”
“I’d say any time, but who knows when we’ll see each other again, if ever, right?”
“Suppose so, yeah.”
“You really do this every night?”
“Yeah,” he rested the screwdriver on the shelf and stood back, marveling at its peaceful slumber on the surface, “every night.”
“I assume you don’t get help too often, huh?”
“Not really, no.”
“Yeah, can’t say that I’ve had too many memorable neighbors myself, most just keep to themselves. Where’d you get the stuff for this, anyway?”
“From the early days, when people were still nervous about this whole thing, we’d trade, talk, you know, like before.”
“Yeah? I came in later, I think. By the time I was here everyone kept to themselves. But really, why bother doing this every night when it’s just gonna break? I don’t get it.”
“I know. I just like it.”
“I guess everyone has something about them, huh?”
“But why a shelf?”
“Because it’s mine. Everything else is just there, but this is mine.”
“Huh,” the second man chuckled to himself, “that sorta makes sense now that you say it like that. Anyway, suns almost set, time for some shut eye. Gotta say, you’ve been one interesting neighbor.”
“Was nice meeting you, g’night.”
The two men retired to their respective cubes, settling in for the evening in their beds before the horrific, omnipresent grinding started. The first man always had trouble sleeping through the night because of it, defiant to the end in refusing to adjust to his unnatural surroundings. At least the shelf was there.