You see nothing, you hear nothing. You don’t scream if you’re hurt or dying. You obey. You stay on the path. You’re born and registered. You grow and learn. If you don’t follow, the nightly t.v. entertainment will be your televised execution. As a child you watch these and learn to never fall out of line. You’re given food, a home, a family, toys. If you disobeyed many parents would threaten you. They’d take you by the arm, point a rigid finger and ask,
“Do you want to be on the T.V.?”
Everything was provided for you. For perks you had to work long and hard. In school it is do and nothing else. If you struggle you could be taken away to work hard labor until progress is made. At the end of each schooling year you’re given a test to determine whether or not you will become more or be assigned to a job and skill set.
The mentally ill are homed. The physically handicapped are organized and placed in corresponding homes and/or jobs. The physically fit are often recruited for the military.
Those who resist, those who rebel, are tortured and killed, most of the time publicly. Rebels are scarce. They are labeled as extremists and political terrorists. The public secretly whispers their names.
But among all of this there are small and hidden sanctuaries called speakeasies. Where contraband and freedom are abundant. They move and are almost untraceable. Almost.
The union tells us of the horrible outside world. I’m not sure how many believe it. I know I never did.
I don’t remember when it started. The doubt and curiosity. But when it did I knew I had to keep quiet. If I didn’t divide or break no one would know. Maybe I would fool myself to falling back into line.
But then it happened. One night, as I sat in my respective place in the living room with my family as we watched the executions something changed in me. The 5 extremists gave no words except their names and the same line.
“I’m different. If you’re listening, and can hear my words. You are too.”
With every shot and every dying breath they took, I felt it in my bones. Something solidify. That night I cried silent tears for them, and the days from then on were different. I took stands in small ways. Like barely passing a test, being almost fast enough. Everyone knew it was on purpose but no one could prove purposely almost making it.
I’d been exceptional before I’d began acting out. Many officials directly over me had been disappointed and I was glad.
At school I learned, took the rigorous courses and complained at nothing despite the pain that wiggled itself to the forefront of my brain. I was glad I didn’t have gym like many of the other students. I was glad I’d scored high enough on my entree exams to opt out of the class and give me a free period. It was a rare thing. But the time I spent in the library was vital to me. Reading was my only escape, but with the small selection I could hardly do anything at all. Many books were banned and blacklisted. So the ones left were almost a copy of the other.
It didn’t help for my writing. I wrote essays and studies in practice for my exam. It was the thing I was best at. Reading and writing. It made more sense than anything else I’d known in my world. But the books mirrored the society, all uniform, with black and white as their sporting colors.
The pages held no life to them but I took comfort in the thought that just maybe not all the books were locked away. They couldn’t be rid of all of them. Not the ones outside of the nation. But hopes of escape were nothing but hope, they held no promises. So I wrote and wrote and breathed and lived. It was all I could do. When the school bell rang I was last to leave. Setting the books away and taking up my things. Walking slowly home, the others around me speaking to one another or having their heads down. I just moved.
I was allowed a freedom that I took advantage of often. That freedom was walking. Walking anywhere I wanted. I just had to report when I’d left and when I’d be back.
At first it was only around town. Then when I had explored all of it I went further, into the housing district. Then further. I could go miles a day. Run even. But I had to be back by 11:30 p.m.. A strict curfew for those my age. But I took advantage of it.
And then came the days that would change my life.
The sound of the ground crunching under my shoes is the sound that I noted the most. The steady crunching of stone against stone as my feet passed over the ground. They knew the way. I didn’t have to think as I walked along the road. Trees to my left and housing to the right. It seemed like it was always winter here. The warmest weather still required a long sleeve shirt and full pants. At least for me. The standard clothing wasn’t anything more than gray duds to keep you from freezing.
I almost jumped as a truck passed me, lost in my own thoughts, but I flinched instead. The Keepers inside sat quietly as the truck bumped along the road. In what I knew, to explain things more clearly to those of you who don’t know, Keepers were like police officers. Yet they were solely militant. A militia so to say. Controlled by the government, yet they had free reign of the towns and cities. Allowed to do as they pleased. They thought that the law didn’t apply to them, and it didn’t. They were never prosecuted for their murders, rapes, and thefts. Nothing could stop them, and no one dared stand against them.
No one dared to stand against anything here.
I had nowhere to go, nowhere to be. Home was the only place I knew where I was at least remotely safe. But it never interested me. So I would always go and walk about the town. Sit here and there and do my work. Keep my head down and eyes away from the keepers. They were heavily armored and clad in black. I’d hear them scan my I.D. bracelet just as they did anyone else they passed. Some would mutter and others would just hum.
I wondered what was on my file to make them do that. Was it my test scores? My family history? I couldn’t ask. You never saw your own file. My curiosity was killing me though. It always did. That was something that would get me killed if I wasn’t careful. So I swallowed it and kept myself still. These keepers weren’t as bad as others in some towns. They wouldn’t do shit with people around. As long as you weren’t alone, and they weren’t on single or partner patrol, you had a good chance of skating by without incident.
But today I needed a walk. A long walk. To escape to somewhere where I could breathe. It had snowed overnight, it was hardly an inch but more snow was expected. It brought beauty to the plain town. The truck that had passed slowly disappearing ahead of me. I huffed relieved.
I’d taken a knife from the kitchen and taken it with me for protection. Though if I was caught with it… Things wouldn’t go well.
So I’d wrapped it in a thin cloth to protect my skin from its cold metal and sharp edge. Had hidden it by sliding it onto the inside pocket of my jacket. My messenger bag slung across both my shoulders. The only thing that drew attention to me was my red scarf. It was the warmest article of clothing I owned. It was cold and the standard winter clothing did very little to provide an excess of warmth. I’d made it myself some time ago and didn’t know what I’d do without it.
I was farther from home than usual when I passed a group of men. I prayed, I prayed more than I would’ve liked to, that they wouldn’t follow. That they wouldn’t come after me. But I should’ve known that God doesn’t exist in a place like this. God doesn’t care about your individuality. No deity ever would. They left it up to you to save yourself, if you couldn’t, then what were you worth?
The men called after me, and I started to head for the woods. I knew the woods. I knew how to get through them. Knew how to get lost and found in them. Aside from my books the trees were my second home. I ran, I was faster than the men, especially as they stumbled through the snow and underbrush. It gave me time to make faux paths. To run them around. It had started to snow again while I ran. But I hardly noticed the snow flurries.
When I felt I’d made enough paths I scurried up a tree to hide. Tucking my red scarf into my jacket and crouching close to a thick tree limb. I winced, the position I was in set the blade of the knife into my side.
If I stayed like this it would cut into me, but I had no time to adjust. The men were already about me, trying to find which trail had been correct. I was silent and hoped they wouldn’t find me. But they were still so close. I shut my eyes tight and suddenly there was the heart breaking sound of mechanics. Metal, and a gun being cocked and aimed. The robotic voice of the Keeper was equally relieving as it was heart stopping.
“Identifications,” he said and the men lined up and complied.
I stayed silent, even as the knife kept sliding into my skin. The pain was more than excruciating but lord knows if I revealed myself now things would be worse.
So I sat with the knife slipping into my side. Watching the Keeper. The men’s backs were turned to me as the Keeper interrogated them. I had a sinking feeling that he knew I was there.
He let the men go. And suddenly walked out of my sight. I stayed hidden for a long as I could before adjusting and pulling the knife from me with quiet whimpers. I let it drop from the tree before falling out of it myself. I set my hand to the wound and pressed hard. Warm blood flooding through my fingers. I used my scarf and some snow to pack the wound. But then came the sound of a gun being brought to the ready. I froze. The knife was far from me. I didn’t dare reach for it. I had zero chance against a gun let alone a Keeper. There was beeping as he read my I.D. bracelet.
There was quiet. Snow falling, my breathing ragged, blood flowing past my fingers.
“You’re hurt…” The voice said and I was still. Don’t speak unless it was a question.
“Can you stand?” He asked and I nodded and held up my hands. Scarf and all, letting my wound bleed.
I turned to him slowly and watched him lower his gun. Strapped around him like my messenger bag was to me. His suit was mechanical, robotic really. The heat from it fogged some of the air. The front of his helmet was a black screen with two white lines.one down the center and one coming across to meet right in the center. His head tilted at the sight of the bleed.
“You’re really hurt,” He said, “and a long way from home. A few miles,” he mused at me like he had all the time in the world.
“What are you doing all the way out here?” He asked and I made sure my voice stayed calm.
“Just taking a walk. Those men started to chase me.” I replied and he hummed.
“I know. I watched.” He replied.
My mind was racing. Why was a keeper in the woods? But I kept my mouth shut tight.
“A knife is against carrying policy.” Said the voice and I glanced at the ground.
“I can see why you’d want one though…” He mumbled.
“What’s your name?” He asked and I spoke dryly. I gave it to him even though I was sure he could see it on my file.
“Claverity Jones.” I breathed and he hummed. The sound came through with static. I could almost feel the electricity climb up my spine. But it was just my own fear. The way he repeated my name made my skin crawl.
“Claverity, nice name.” He said before grumbling something to himself. He was upset with his sight through his helmet that concealed his identity from me. He made no move to take it off. I knew he wasn’t going to. I swallowed whatever sorrows I had. I could have nothing. I could not even own myself in this world.
“You’re tough,” There was a long silence. “I could kill you so easily. I could’ve left you for them.” He said
“I should take you in.” He said and I felt sick.
“You know I won’t though… You’re smart.” He said lowly
“Would you like medical assistance?” He asked and I set my jaw, knowing I was bleeding. But also knowing what that meant. All girls learned from a young age never to accept 'medical assistance' from anyone other than an actual medic or clinic worker.
“No sir,” I said and he hummed.
“What’s your return time?” He asked and I swallowed.
“11:30 p.m.” I said in a dry tone.
“Really?” He said amused I saw him rub his thumb against his palm.
“Seem’s like you do that a lot,” he said. I came to the eerie realization that he was scrolling through my information. I was shivering.
“You’re cold.” He said to himself. I could almost feel his eyes narrow from under his helmet.
“Too cold, your wound is worse than you think.” He moved forward and my heart jumped to my throat.
“Relax.” He said and I looked up into the helmet. My own reflection staring back at me. He was only a foot away. I felt so small. I would be lying to say that I wasn’t scared.
“Let me give you medical attention.” He said and I set my jaw.
“No thank you,” I said again. He followed up with a quick retort.
“You won’t make it back home. Those men will be waiting for you.” He said and I faked my courage.
“I don’t care.” I said and I felt his surprise in the way he shifted.
“It’s not my problem if you bleed out in the woods.” He said and I looked at him.
“In your words sir. You could’ve just shot me. Or let the men have me. This wasn’t your problem to begin with.” I put my hand back with my scarf to put pressure on my wound.
“No, but I can make it yours if you don’t watch your tone little miss switchblade.” He said in an annoyed tone. I should’ve just shut up. But then again, this had already gone so far. I knew he wasn't going to let me walk away.
“What’s a peacekeeper doing out here anyways?” I snapped and he shoved me against the tree I’d fallen out of.
“Do you really want to know? Because your first mistake is asking, the second will be meaning it,” he growled through the helmet.
“It was always my mistake, my problem, sir,” I said and he got closer. So close that my breath fogged his helmet.
“Do you want this on your record?” He threatened.
“Do what you’re going to do.” I snapped. Suddenly he stiffened. Shifted.
“What?” He asked low and slow as if he didn’t believe what he’d heard me say.
“Thank you, for getting rid of those men. But the motivation is clear.”
“I knew you were hurt. And did my job,” he defended suddenly trying to backtrack. Maybe to make it look better, as if I hadn’t caught him.
“Medical assistance… Everyone knows what that really means.” I said and he pushed me hard into the tree again. Hard enough to push air out of my lungs.
“Even after you were finished with me I’d have to crawl out of this place. Deal with those men. Or you’d make me report different.” I said and he pushed again.
“Shut up!” He commanded again and this time he punched me as he spoke. I felt my head bounce off the tree. I felt the concussion. The keeper let my body drop to the ground. I blacked out.
At least I wouldn’t remember what he’d do to me.
When I woke up I was laying in the snow, a light blanket of it being laid over top of me. I was cold, numb, aching, and bloody. The layers of clothes he’d taken off me he’d put back on incorrectly. But he’d patched the deep gash in my side. I wonder for a moment if he had raped me before or after patching me up. He had the decency to leave me my knife, but my scarf was nowhere to be seen. I cried, laying in the freezing snow just for a moment. The peacefulness of the moment lost to me.
But I did what was expected of me. I got up. I put the knife in my bag, and swallowed any emotion that came to surface. I walked to the nearest clinic. I made a report. I lied. I was treated. And was transported home after medical attention. All of which included shots, pills, and contraception. My family worried but I said nothing. I was beat to hell.
I stayed in bed for a few days. Other than going to school I just laid at home. Until I watched an execution. The man’s words and the crack of the gun fire made me sick. But that night I repeated the words he’d said like a chant in my head.
I’m different, but if you’re listening, and can hear my words. You are too.
The next day I went out again. I wore less layers, displayed my bruises. When another group followed me I stopped and looked at them. They went wide-eyed at the sight of me. Then when they finally turned away I kept onwards.
I wasn't going to let anyone one else try and take something from me.
I walked all the way to the labor district that day. It was at the end of a road, with another one going all the way around it. A simple short barbed wire fence around it. I stood just on the other side. By the trees, looking forward at the security checkpoint. In the booth was a peace keeper. I approached, looking beyond the point to see structures. There was no snow here on the road. But beyond there was. I went to the security checkpoint, looking at the Keeper as he sat in his seat. He had no helmet and was much older than I had expected. He looked confused by my presence.
“I would like to walk a bit further sir.” I said and he blinked. As if to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.
“I’m not sure if that’s such a good idea young miss. Especially in your state.” The caring and worrying tone of his voice was genuine. The sadness in his voice reached his eyes. I looked past the checkpoint again.
“Please sir.” I said and he was quiet. Slowly he stood and looked around in his booth before sighing.
“I’m not supposed to but. I’ll let you through if you deliver something for me.” He said and I nodded. He dug around in the security booth for a moment before pulling out a paper wrapped parcel. In the other hand he held a blue arm band. He handed me the band first.
“On your left arm.” He said and I slid it on over my jacket sleeve. It’s color stood out sharply from my grey clothes. He spoke as I adjusted the band.
“These things come every other day, that and other mail that comes every day. It’s a bitch for me to take it in and then walk out and home every day. You doin’ this for me sure saves me a lot of walking.” He said taking a small breath at the end.
“I’ll do it every time if you want.” I said and he laughed a bit.
“You might not want to. Just take it into the main guard compound by the quarry. It’s a 30 minute walk. What’s your return time?” He asked and I hummed as I took the package.
“11:30” I replied and he whistled.
“You really do like walking huh? Well. Go on ahead. Stay on the road, it’ll take you to where you need to go.” He said and I nodded to him before watching him lift the gate and let me through.
Walking in I didn’t realize how bad it was until I reached the buildings. The place was a slum. The air was becoming thick with fumes, saute, and dusts. The road’s edges were succumbing to the mud and gravel that surrounded it. The laborers lived in the large homes with one another, that is unless they were here for their job and lived out of the district. Like the Keepers that worked here didn’t often live here.
When people passed me they didn’t look too long. I suppose with my injuries we looked the same. About fifteen minutes in I spotted a body lying face down in a muddy ditch.
I didn’t need to get close to know that whoever it was was surely dead. I kept walking though, just to the side of the road. Gravel crunching under my shoes. I watched trucks go by as I walked. Some full of rocks, some full of men. There weren’t very many women from what I saw. Some of the women I did see were prostitutes. I was 15 minutes in to the walk when I saw the first one.
She was middle aged, her dark, kinky hair was up in an effort to try and make herself look more presentable. She was dirty like everyone else here. Her skinny body was pale in the cold, and when she looked at me she looked tired. She did a double take on me and at first I assumed it was because she was tired. But she approached me and came to walk alongside me just not on the road.
“My goodness sweet thing you look like hell. Looks like someone done you up bad.” She said worriedly.
“I’m okay.” I appreciated her worry. To be honest she and the keeper at the checkpoint seemed to be the only two people who really cared. She nodded and kept with me.
“You a messenger? From outside the district?” she asked and I nodded.
“Might want to take the band off if you ain’t stayin’ on this road. Makes you a target and it don’t look like you need that.” She said and I nodded.
“Thanks. I’m just going to the guard station.” I replied and she made a face.
“Then keep that thing plastered to you. Them keepers are the worst.” She warned and I slowed and nodded to her.
“I know,” I said and it seems she understood, “thank you for worrying. Be as safe as you can yourself.” I said and she nodded soberly.
From then on almost any woman I passed was much like the one I’d spoke too. Thin, dirty, and worried. The told me to be safe and spoke similar words at the first woman. Others simply frowned and averted their eyes completely.
When I arrived at the Keepers’ compound I hummed at its concrete structure. As if it had just been dropped from the sky to sit there. It was an ugly building but I swallowed my disgust. It sat just yards away from the quarry.
I entered the building quietly, the air in the building was warm and sticky compared to that of the outside. It made me feel nauseous. I quietly went to the front attendant. A Keeper in uniform was there. No mechanical field uniform, just a simple black and grey military uniform. He looked up at me surprised when I came to the desk.
He stumbled over his first words.
“Identify and purpose.” He said and I took in a breath.
“Claverity Jones, I’m delivering a parcel from the keeper on the,” I thought for a moment, “South checkpoint.” I said and he furrowed his brows.
“Right. Uh, just a moment.” He stood stiffly and walked out from behind the desk and behind the privacy walls that were behind him. The walls separated this room from the rest of the building. Then a sliding door opened from the wall just to the left of the desk. The man from the desk was standing just in the opening.
“Follow me please.” He said and I shifted and slowly came towards him. I swallowed my fear. It was safe here, there were many keepers here. It was less likely anyone would try to come at me. That's what I told myself as the young man lead me through the station.
“Don’t speak less spoken to, hand the package to the captain himself.” He said and my stomach twisted up. Captain? What had I gotten myself into? But I didn’t protest. I just nodded.
Keepers were everywhere. I didn’t know what to think or feel. So I stood up straighter and did my best to not look anywhere but ahead of me. When we stopped just at a door the man knocked once. One sold knuckle to the body of the door. I could feel eyes on me.
“Enter.” Commanded a muffled voice from the other side of the door. The man opened the door to a dark room.
“A delivery from south end checkpoint border sir.” said the man and the voice came louder, a bit stressed.
“Davis left his post?”
“No a volunteer messenger sir.” Said the man as he gestured for me to step into the room.
Upon entering the room I found it mostly concrete and tools. A drain in the center of the floor. Papers, plans, reports littered the back wall. But the spaces in between the papers were abundant. I could spot a metal chair towards the back corner. Just off to the right side of the room towards the back was a desk. An older man sat behind it. He had salt and pepper hair, and sat in his chair with his feet kicked up on the desk. He looked at me surprised and quickly went to stand.
“Volunteer? You’re joking.” He laughed to himself.
I tried not to look to uneasy. But it was hard because I knew exactly what this room was. Interrogation and corrections.
“What’s your name kid?” He asked and I took in a breath.
“Calverity Jones sir.” I said and he approached.
“How’d you come by volunteering to deliver this?” He asked gesturing to the parcel.
“I walked to the checkpoint and wanted to go a bit further. The Keeper said I could only if I delivered this here sir.” I replied and he held out his hand. I gave him the packages.
“This hasn’t left your hands?” He asked and I shook my head.
“No sir.” I said and he hummed as he walked to his desk.
“You haven’t opened it either I see.” He said putting it on his desk. He looked over some things there and didn’t look up when he spoke.
“Why do you want to walk through this district?” He asked
“I like to walk, really the only thing I can do other than study, I was curious.” I said and he hummed.
“Not always a good thing to be. But it looks like you might know that.” he said before gesturing to the chair off to the side.
“If you would like to sit, pull up a seat. All that walking must have your feet aching.” He said it almost like he was daring me and I shifted.
“No thank you sir. Kind of you to offer.” I replied and he glanced at me.
“I’m not all that kind kid. Now get out of here.” He said and I nodded.
“Yes sir, have a good day sir.” I said quietly before quickly scurrying out of the office.
I saw the man from the front desk smiling at me. He’d waited for me outside the office. He shut the door behind me as he spoke.
“Good job Mrs Jones, you need an escort out of the district?” He asked and I shook my head.
“No thank you.” I said and he nodded.
“Then be careful. Walk yourself out.” He said and I nodded before turning to walk out of the building.
When I was out, and greeted by the dry cold air, relief washed over me. My hands were shaking. I clenched them and started to walk towards the quarry as the evening began to creep into the slums. I looked at the gates to the quarry and began to walk along its fence as it started into the woods. There was a short trail around it, like a rabbit trail. I followed it and looked down into the quarry. I watched the men working the stones as I climbed the hill they were digging into. I looked at the time and cursed lowly. I needed to go.
But I knew I’d come back to this spot tomorrow. The view was so much more beautiful than any I’d ever seen before. I would put up with the Keep Captain a second time if I must. It was worth a view like this. So I went home. The Keeper who’d let me in, Davis is what the captain had called him, was gone. Another man in his place. I went to him and took of the band.
“Here.” I said and he looked at me.
“What? Not coming back?” he asked and I shifted. Word got around fast or maybe Davis had told him.
“I’ll be back tomorrow.” I said and he looked at me confused.
“Then keep it I guess. Now get outta here kid.” he waved a hand at me. His voice was amused and I smiled before starting back down the road.
No one would take this freedom away from me.
I didn't care how many Keepers I'd have to face, I would never let them take this away from me.