Not sure on the title for this piece, but it’s the short story for February, theme of dystopia. I really enjoyed this month’s challenge, which means I’ll likely continue this piece at my own pace! Challenges will resume this week, but for now – enjoy this piece of writing! I loved writing it!
It doesn’t matter where I go. They can always see where I walk, who I talk to. The emotions I feel aren’t even safe. I’m paranoid, but only because the government have driven me to it. They even decide, thanks to the loose, but not too loose, metal collar around my throat, what time I should be indoors. I’d not be surprised if they even monitored what food I’d eaten that day. I’d often had less than nutritious cravings vanish without me biting into a single, fatty pastry or piece of chocolate. I didn’t understand why they saw us as cattle for them to rear in the way they decided. I hated it though. It wasn’t a life, I knew it. I had family who were free once. Free, but no longer.
I was a number without a name in their database. To my family and friends, my name is Shannon. To those who mattered, my number shows clearly on my collar for all to see. 134-546-6734. Try remembering that at a young age – when your teacher at school refuses to call you by anything else. It was because of school that I was walking around now…or that was the excuse I’d use if I happened across one of the NSG. The Night Safety Guard were able to use any brutal force they wished on citizens caught out of their section. My section was the western most flat block. I was in the north east sector, walking quickly, my head down. I didn’t need them to catch me now. I just wanted to get home.
If it wasn’t for the stupid school, I could have been there now. I could have been eating a lovely dinner, nutritionally balanced, of course. More vegetable products than I could bear to eat, a slab of boiled grey meat and something akin to boiled potatoes. I hated it. It was bland. The vegetables were either overcooked and watery, or undercooked – tough and cold to chew. I hastened along now, my head dipping forward so my short hair, a mix of brown and blonde that wasn’t one or the other, covered my face. The thought of food had made my stomach ache, reminding me how long it had been since I’d last eaten.
I passed a dark alleyway, not even darting a look down into it. Dark people lingered down there, almost enticingly free of the metal wrapping around my neck. I breathe carefully. I give them no reason to come close to me. I don’t couldn’t let the NSG arrest me for breaking some rule I’ve never heard of. It made me cringe as I heard the ringing footsteps behind me. I wasn’t sure who it was. If I’d see the silver baton of a NSG, looking out for my safety or coming to arrest me, or if it was one of those who wandered the criminal underbelly, undetected. I didn’t lift my head to look. I didn’t hurry my steps. I gave them no reason to notice me, while expecting to find a fist in my hair.
I couldn’t hear anything as my heartbeat began to throb in my ears. I couldn’t even hear my own footsteps. My breathing was sawing in my chest. I was panicking. I bit back a whimper, sinking my teeth into my lip. I couldn’t even begin to think about where I was going, but I needed to stop. I made a show of pulling out my directions from my pocket. I then lifted my head, looking for one of the street signs that would point my way. The footsteps had halted, but I didn’t look behind me. They couldn’t think I knew they were there. My heart continued to race. The sweat on the back of my neck dried under my hair, and I almost forgot my troubles as I realised just how matted it would be.
Instead of complaining about my hair, I lifted my head upwards. I was standing under a streetlight, one of the few to remain. There were rumours that the NSG were sensitive to light, but I knew otherwise. The government didn’t have the money to keep the lights on all the time. As I hesitated about which way to go, I heard a cruel rumble of laughter from behind me.
“Looks like a little girl is lost…where are you going, sweetheart?” I sank my teeth into my lips before squaring my shoulders and straightening up. I turned on my heel, promising myself I wouldn’t act like a wimp.
“None of your business. I was just resting for a moment, that’s all.” I snapped the answer back, the gnawing pit in my stomach telling me how stupid I’d been.
“Well aren’t you a confident one? Don’t you know what roams this street could curl your hair and turn it grey before your time?” I’d already noticed that he didn’t wear the same collar I did. His was larger. He had no numbers stamped onto the thick metal. Where mine was loose, I could see the light gleaming off shiny scars – ridges of them, building up towards his chin. I wanted to wince, to show sympathy. Some gut instinct told me that he would see it as pity. Hardly anyone wore the old collars. They were prototypes, punishments reserved for the most heinous of crimes. Staring into his eyes, I knew I should have run. I could still have time to – but I didn’t want to show how scared he made me feel. I wiped my clammy palms down my trousers before lifting my chin defiantly.
“I don’t care. I’m not going to be out much longer, anyway. So why don’t you leave me alone?”
I didn’t expect the low chuckle, warmer this time. He stepped closer, his cold grey eyes seeming to warm a little as he looked at me.
“With fire like that in your stomach, I don’t think you’ll do too badly here. But let me walk you. The NSGs see you alone, they will take you. You don’t want one of these.” He rapped on his collar, the metal ringing out dimly. I could see where his flesh was beginning to grow onto the metal. I winced a little before he watched me. Now he was closer, I could see that the corner of his eyes lined with laughter, and that he didn’t seem so rough. Even with the fading remnants of inked designs on his arms. I knew I shouldn’t, but I nodded.
“I’m looking for building 157 in the north east. I’ve gotta give a message and pick something up.”
He nodded, but I sidestepped when he came close. I still wasn’t going to let him get close enough to grab me. He sighed, but I didn’t care how much I hurt his feelings. It was a hard world – one made worse by the government. They made sure we were under control, and much as I hated it – I was no different. They had conditioned me to not accept the aid of one man – simply because the hunk of metal around his neck told me he caused trouble. I dropped my eyes guiltily as he led me along, taking a direct route that was mostly lit up. The pools of light were where he hesitated, looking around for some unknown landmark.
I was sure by the end of today, I’d have frown marks permanently embedded in my forehead. I’d be old before my time, and all because my teacher was too lazy to go home. I wanted to say something now, but the only person I could speak to was the man walking just out of reach, in utter silence. I opened my mouth to speak once – before hesitating and shaking my head.
“Just spit it out, will you?” He didn’t snap the words out, like I would have. He spoke gently, almost like he cared about me.
“What’s your number?” I knew better than to stop and talk. Already, I was expecting to have to make a report to someone. I’d broken curfew and the boundary where I should be of an evening. If I lingered too much, they might send an AVR out to find me.
AVRs were nothing to snort at, either. Armoured Vehicle Response has to be the last thing I ever wanted to be involved with. They tranquilised first, asked questions later. A lot later.
“I don’t have one. They wiped me from the system after I upgrade to this beauty.” He knocked again on the hollow collar, and now I looked, I could see a darkness to his eyes. Darkness that spoke of evil deeds done. I swallowed softly before lifting my chin.
“What did you do to get one of those?” It was a question from the gut. I hadn’t wanted to ask it – and yet I knew it was the right thing to do. I just had to know – now, rather than later. He stopped in front of a tall building, and looked up.
“Here. Building 157, as you asked. I’ll wait here for you, then walk you back to your area. Hurry now. AVRs patrol here. This isn’t a nice place to be.” I snorted at his words as I entered the block of flats. I was hoping the elevator worked. My teacher lived on the fifth floor, and I didn’t want to climb all of those stairs. That was just asking for me to be too exhausted to even walk back to the tiny room I call home. My stomach called out for food, and I pressed into it with my free hand for a moment as I pushed the button on the ancient rickety lift. I held my breath until lights gleamed. I could have danced with the relief of knowing I didn’t have to walk. I stepped inside, wrinkling my nose at the smell inside.
This place must have truly been a punishment. It was worse than where I lived. That was saying something. I lived in a nasty area, where criminal activity was rife. Most of them wore collars however. Collared and permanently cuffed with trackers and ways to stop any undesirable behaviour. I wasn’t impressed. I’d never been tempted to be a part of one of the gangs, going around and antagonising any of the guards. I waited patiently for the elevator to rise the five floors, ignoring the shuddering and trembling. I knew that it would get there, it was just a sluggish thing.
The lights dipped and I held my breath, gasping as I clutched the mirrored edges of the elevator and waited. Please…please don’t go out now…I wouldn’t be able to escape. I bit my lip, chewed it until I could taste the sharp rust of my own blood. I growled under my breath as I shook my head. Stretching upwards, I touched the low ceiling for reassurance. This wasn’t a small box, caving in on me. This was a piece of machinery that had lasted centuries, repaired and upgraded where needed.
Finally, the lights flicked back on. The doors whooshed open, sliding apart smoothly – as though they had never caused me a worry. I sighed as I stepped free, leaving the bobbing box behind me. I knew this wouldn’t be easy. I had her key, but I didn’t want anyone to accuse me of breaking in. This mattered too much to my teacher for that. I blew a breath out, lifting a sweaty strand of hair that threatened to bother me. I found her door, marked with her number – 167-547-6975. I knew it well, stared at it every day I was in class. Her key worked fine, though the door creaked open. I cringed, closing my eyes, recoiling. This was too loud.
A stench came from within. A horrible smell making me gag. Stealing my breath. Thick and cloying enough to coat my tongue, so I could taste it. I hesitated to enter. I wasn’t sure I could do this. I wished, with all my heart that I could walk away. That I could turn, go home. That I wasn’t alone with the sickly sweet scent, like a warning. Like a creature I’d heard tales of in the past. I pulled the neck of my issued top over my nose, trying to filter out the smell as we filtered our water. Stepping inside, I cleared my throat slowly.
“Hello? Is there anyone in?”
I was hoping that there’d be no reply, but I knew my luck was awful. Why would this, now, have to be any different?
“Third door on the left. She said you were coming.” I wondered how, but I soon remembered that adults received chips that transformed their info-tabs into phones. I moved forward reluctantly, dipping my head forward. “Come on, girl! I don’t have all day!” The thought that it was night hovered on the tip of my tongue. The next was that his voice seemed to change. From croaking to easier, as if he’d cleared his throat. I shook my head a little, opening the door with no small amount of trepidation.
“Come on then! Where I can look at you, or are you too much of a wimp to come and see me?” He offered me a challenge I couldn’t deny. I stepped forward, the fire in my heart flaring fresh. I wanted to snap, to shout. Only respect for my elders stopped me.
“I’m no wimp, sir. I just came to give you a message. Your daughter just told me to let you know that she has a meeting with her friends tonight. And she asked me to collect her overnight bag.” I stood upright, back straight and chin jutting forward stubbornly.
There was humour in his eyes. He was wrinkled, deeply so. It looks as though his eyes were disappearing into the loose flesh about his cheeks. His jowls hung low, hiding the thin snaking metal that no doubt tracked his movements as surely as mine tracked me. I didn’t think he moved much, however. Despite the wrinkles that spoke of an opulent lifestyle, he seemed gaunt, lacking something in the face. No matter what I did, he wasn’t going to look happy. There was a sad look to him. It was almost as though someone had forgotten him. I felt ashamed. I didn’t like how he seemed forgotten. There should be a pride in reaching old age, especially in a place that seemed festooned with mould and damp.
“Well done for speaking up, young lady. Now…what’s your name?” I caught a glimpse of something in his eyes. A sharpness, glimmering deep within those pale, pale orbs.
“134-546-6734.” I spoke crisply. I knew he meant that, he had to. There was no way anyone else could ask if I had a real name. I knew I didn’t have one. Well, not one that anyone would know. I was a number. We all were.
“Your name, not your number, child.” His words were harsh. I cringed back from them, not sure if I even dared to speak. “Now, before I die in front of you.” He gave me no chance to say no.
“Shannon…” I spoke carefully. I spoke reluctantly. I knew there was no way he could help me if something changed, or if someone came after me.
I’d admitted to a cardinal sin. I knew the punishment. We all did. We had it drummed into our heads from the moment we went to school at five until the day we died. I could have spoken the rules in my sleep. It didn’t mean I believed them, had to follow them. I did everything I could to keep my head down, so no one knew – but this old man had wrinkled my name from me in moments. He held me with his glazed glare, the wrinkles in his head giving his skin the appearance of a pile of folded towels.
“So do you want to know how to avoid get a ATC or not? Speak up, I’m deaf!” He barked words at me, and forced me to answer. I couldn’t refuse an answer to that tone.
ATCs were the first level of punishment, and the least invasive. Activity Tracking Collars worked by connecting special wires to all of your limbs. If you moved away from your designated zone, you would experience an electric shock that would knock you out. It was the easiest punishment. The next level involved cuffs around your ankles that locked together and stopped you in your tracks, would make you vulnerable to anyone walking by. The third was the worst, to my mind. You disappeared. There was no record of you even existing. No one knew what happened when you vanished, but no one ever mentioned you again. Even your family didn’t seem upset. I was a wimp, when everything came down to it. The thought of pain, of hurting – why would I even want to do that to myself? But to lose myself entirely? To vanish? I didn’t want that.
“Yes please, sir. I have this pass from my teacher, but – I don’t know what I can do. Please, tell me?”
I tried to speak clearly, but I was afraid that fear had lodged my tongue against the roof of my mouth. That I had lost my voice, simply because I couldn’t even bring myself to look at him. He seemed to settle back in against his flat pillows, reeking of old person and the cabbage they fed us every meal. I sighed softly, shaking my head as I clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms. I tried to force myself to relax, but his eyes moved, and I realised I was edging towards the door. I was moving toward my escape. I needed to get out of here. A sobbing breath rang out, and I shook my head when I realised the feeble sounds were coming from me. I was embarrassed, hating myself for being so weak.
“Scared, little girl? Well you should be. There’s a world out there, and it ain’t as pretty as you think.” I watched as spittle dribbled down his chin and tears sprang into my eyes. If this was what old age made you, then I wanted to die young. I didn’t want to be so bitter. “Ach, dry those tears. You need to be strong. Learn to have a spine and say what you feel.” I felt his eyes on me and flinched. I wished I’d had the courage to say no. He wiped his damp chin with the back of one skeletal hand, skin sagging. He looked like he was shrivelling, in front of my eyes, and I hated it. This wasn’t how I wanted to live. I had been happy.
Had been happier. It would end up being the story of my life, or so I feared. Instead of speaking, he began to laugh. A guttural laugh that led to him coughing. After coughing, he began to choke and I ran. I couldn’t be there. Even as I fumbled with the door, breaking a nail, I heard him gasp for breath. There was a rattle in his chest that terrified me – but not as much as the sound of screaming bells outside. I sobbed a breath before running for the door at the end of the corridor. I forgot everything but to escape. For the NSG to be here would mean that he had died. His collar would have reported his failing life-stats. I knew it, we all did. And I was responsible for him dying, because I hadn’t even used the compulsory first aid taught to us to save lives.
The bells grew louder as I forced myself through the door. My lungs burned, tears scalded my cheeks. The muscles in my legs threatened not to work, until I was stumbling down ten flights of stairs. I knew I wasn’t going fast enough. The only way I would go faster would be to fall – and then they would catch me. This fear was too much for me. I stopped, somewhere near the bottom and retched. I gagged until bile soured my throat and splattered on the ground. I’d killed a man. They would make me disappear. I didn’t run any faster. Simply by being there, I’d incriminated myself. I was the one who was in the wrong. I had shown myself to be a guilty party. My collar would let them know I’d been there when he died.
A hand covered my mouth as someone tugged me into the shadows. The hand stifled a scream as I slipped from a step and my ankle. Tears built again in my eyes as the taste of my own vomit made me gag again. The hand loosened as a low voice rumbled in my ear.
“Stay still. They’re looking for you, but if you stay still, I’ll do what I can to keep you safe. It’s what she would have wanted.” He cursed behind me. I paid no attention to what he said then. The question of who ‘she’ was instead made me frown. I had to question him.
“Who would want me-” I was hushed again, his hand smothering my mouth, my words lost to his palm. I felt him fumbling with one hand at the back of my neck.
The collar snicked…before slipping from around my neck. I felt naked without it. One hand lifted to my throat, stroking the skin that felt roughened. I brushed my fingers across the flesh before I felt cold metal slipping over my neck and tightening a little. I was ready to gag, but then I realised that this wasn’t my number. I couldn’t feel the familiar embossed edges, sharp enough to slice my fingers. I lifted my eyes to the man who had escorted me, but he was doing something weird with my old collar. The metal had wires sticking out from either end, and he was twisting different coloured ones together. I heard the quiet snick of a door opening and my breath caught in my throat.
I would have cried out, but the door shut and I let go of his shirt. He nodded at me, unable to smile. He seemed worn, exhausted. I spoke in a whisper, hidden inside the echoing shadows of a stairwell.
“Who is she? Please tell me? And…why did you even save me? I’ve…I’ve done wrong. Too much wrong.” I was about to break down. I could feel a lump in my throat. I wanted to leave, wanted to go back to this afternoon. Wanted to say no to the teacher who taught me the most important of things – how to survive in this world.
“Your mother. Before she died, when you were no taller than my knee. She told me I had to watch out for you.” He spoke quietly, but not in a whisper any longer. He seemed to know something I didn’t – but it was the mention of my mother.
She’d died when I was five. I had been at a friend’s house, learning to spell and read. When she’d not picked me up, her friend had alerted my father and the DSG. The Day Security Guards had found her dead, her wrists slit in the kitchen. Suicide. The least preventable death, as the body released nothing until blood began to drain away, too fast to halt. My dad allowed me to say goodbye. To kiss her blood-smeared cheeks. I didn’t cry. I didn’t understand then why her cheek was pale and her eyes open, staring. I didn’t know why she was cold – I just remember turning to my daddy and telling him to give mommy a blanket, as she was going to get a cold. I must have been nine or ten before I realised that she was dead, and that was when I started worrying about the collar I wore.
“How…how did you even know her?”
“She was my younger sister, she wasn’t even meant to be here. There are places…outside this place. Small cities, where you don’t need a collar. Where you can talk to anyone you want. I only came here with her because she met your father, and fell in love. Otherwise, I’d never have this thing on.” He kept his voice low as he rapped his knuckles against the metal that he had lodged in his skin. I flinched and shook my head, wincing. It was…my fault? Was that what he meant?
“So…why don’t I know you? Why can’t I remember you?” I was practically pleading with him at this point. I didn’t have a clue how to get away from where I was – or even if he was lying to me. It was possible, I knew.
The frantic beats of my heart must have done something to the collar around my throat, as I heard a frantic beating, muffled by his soft curse.
“Don’t tell them you saw me. Just say – someone threatened you. When you can, come to this place.” I didn’t know where he meant – I hoped he didn’t mean here. I’d never be coming back here again. He forced a piece of dirty tissue was forced into my clenched fist as he leaned forward and kissed my head. I startled back, but he simply ran his hand over my hair before fleeing. I waited for the sound of a call or boots thumping on the ground. Nothing happened bar a shout from above me, and I wrapped my arms around my legs and prepared for them to take me away.
In the eyes of the law, which I knew as well as any other citizen, I’d committed murder. I closed my eyes and tipped my face upwards. I just hoped – whatever they did to me didn’t hurt. That I could once again walk the dingy, cracked pavement that was my home. I wanted to find this man who called himself my uncle, and see what he had to say for himself. It seemed like he’d woken something inside of me. Maybe – there was a cat-like curiosity within me…and I’d have to reign that in the whole time that they interrogated me. After all, if there was a way for me to escape this collar, judging every little thing I did, everything I said – then I would take it.