No law respecting the established religion, prohibiting its free and compulsory practice may be passed. All citizens free or otherwise are responsible for their speech, as is the press. The Board may sanction the people, or the press should they choose to malign The Corporation or its representatives in print, thought, word, or action.
–First Amendment, Constitution Incorporated Precincts of America
A hand grabs my shoulder, and I know I’m screwed. The flickering light from the Jumbotron across the street dispels the concealing darkness. What was I thinking trying to ninja my way across town square after dark? I pull my hat lower, hoping he won’t recognize me.
Especially if curfew has started.
Dan and Katie are starting the Manhunt pre-show on the Jumbotron, which isn’t a good sign. Manhunt rarely starts before seven.
My mouth is dry, and the hammering of my heart fills my ears. It’s the fight-or-flight response kicking in big time. Except in my case, it’s the flight-and-still-get-pommeled response.
Even knowing how it always ends, I still think about running.
Just for a second.
Old habits die hard.
I move my eyes to the hand, hoping it’s not covered by a white glove. Crap, it is. So, the he attached to the hand isn’t a regular cop. A cop will just shake me down and let me go. But not this guy.
He’s a Son of Liberty.
I’m surprised he didn’t shoot me. They usually do. I mean, it’s kind of their go to move. I glance from glove to face.
I silence a scream because the guy isn’t any old Son. It’s Harlan Grundy, and the name alone makes most kids cry. Always has.
Harlan’s been bullying kids since the old days, back when we still lived in a place called The USA. By the time The Corporation ran things, changed it to The Incorporated Precincts of America, or IPA, Harlan had transformed bullying into an art form. I mean, watching Harlan terrorize a kid is like watching Michelangelo turn a hunk of stone into a statue. Pure artistry.
Unless you’re the rock.
All the Sons are big, but Harlan’s bigger. Not like Schwarzenegger big. It’s a more natural kind.
Like a gorilla.
Most let his stocky form, with its squashed nose, thick fingers, and stubby legs, fool them. But Harlan possessed a speed unheard of, even among Olympic athletes.
And me, underneath this big ass coat, I’m a scrawny sixteen-year-old. Exercise and me, we’re not the best of friends. I mean, we wave when we pass in the halls. Unless running from Harlan counts. Because if it does, then I’m a gold medalist.
Okay, maybe bronze because he always catches me.
“Hold it, Citizen,” he says loud enough for me to hear over the droning voices from the Jumbotron. This is quite a feat since they always have it turned up to like a million.
He doesn’t recognize me.
He says something, but Dan speaks over him from the Jumbotron. “We’ll be back after this message.”
A second later, tolling bells replace his smug voice, sounding out the half hour. I glance at the screen, hoping it says six thirty, which it won’t. Instead, a robotic voice says, “The time is now seven thirty. Curfew is in effect.”
I’m doubly screwed.
After curfew, you get arrested, or worse, unless you’re on official IPA business. It won’t take anyone more than one look at me to know I’m not. And Harlan’s fists and I have known each other since I was eight, and he was eleven. It’s only a matter of time until his dim brain dusts off the cobwebs and the first faint itch of recognition dawns on him.
If he doesn’t shoot me, which I doubt, there’s two simple choices left. But I won’t get to choose. An Inquisitor will decide between sending me to a Liberty Camp or inducting me into the army.
The second is most likely. They’re drafting more people every day. Younger and younger too. I mean, except for like ward commanders, inquisitors, auditors, the whole Corporation is getting younger. I guess they figure the young don’t have as much attachment to the way things were.
The CEO says we’re winning the war, and the extra troops are for the last push into Ottawa. But I’ve heard the rumors. Who hasn’t?
Some say Mexico, Canada’s ally, has won ground in the southwest. Others, say the early winter weather, has paralyzed our troops in Ontario and Alaska. What’s happening in Europe is anyone’s guess.
So, whatever the Inquisitor decides, it’s better if Harlan shoots me.
Usually I’m home before curfew, but I had forgotten it’s earlier now. That’s thanks to the Doe’s and their rebels blowing up stuff. Last Tuesday they blew up the rationing center, that’s the day most of the Sons get their rations. Now, the rest of us are still living off our last pitiful allotment.
Movies make rebellion seem exciting and heroic. I guess it is, fighting oppression or whatever. But from where I sit, trying to get by and stay off The Corporations radar, it’s terrifying. It doesn’t help people like me. Maybe it will someday. But I’m not holding my breath for that.
I burrow deeper into my father’s coat, trying to avoid eye contact. The coat must be the only reason Harlan doesn’t recognize me. There’s no point trying to hide the bag of contraband I’m holding.
I mean, it’s right there.
Besides, it’s just dumb cans of stupid beef stew I bought at the black market. The e-rations don’t hardly give anyone enough food. So, most people, leastways those who can afford it, turn to the black market. Even Block Watch commanders like Harlan.
It’s not totally the Doe’s fault, though. Food, at least the unpowdered kind, was scarce even before they blew up the rationing center. The troops passing through on their way north to the wall, took most of what we had. They didn’t bother leaving much for us citizens.
The military and Ward commanders always live high on the hog.
I’m not sweating the stew, though. I expect he’ll “impound” it. But I’m more worried what’s stuffed into my belt will come spilling out. If it does, he’ll definitely shoot me.
He’s eying the bag though. His mouth might even watering. We both stand there playing our weird freeze tag, waiting for the stupid bell to stop tolling.
As soon as it does Harlan says, “You’re behind curfew, citizen. Slice me the stew and I won’t donate a one.”
It takes me a moment to translate his words to regular English. If I give him the stew, he won’t give me a class one penalty. I can’t speak because he’ll recognize my voice, so I nod. Kneeling, I put the bag down and hurry away.
I don’t look back.
You never look back.
If you do, they might see your face, connect it to a list of subversives, or rebels, or whatever you didn’t know you were on.
I’m two blocks away before a big grin spread across my face. Dumbass Harlan was so preoccupied by the bag he didn’t notice the cans crammed in my pockets.
I decide to go home through the woods. It’s longer and a thousand percent spookier, but it has more cover. Plus the Corporation hasn’t put cameras in the forest.
At least not yet anyway. That might change if they suspect the squirrels of treason.
Harlan lives two houses away from me. If he’s heading home, it’s worth the extra twenty-minute walk to avoid him, thank you very much.
I’m plodding along because I can’t see a thing in the inky blackness. Everything is a muddied silhouette, and I don’t want to trip on something, break my neck. I used to find the sounds of leaves crunching under my feet strangely satisfying. But I don’t anymore.
They just tell the Sons, or rebel squirrels where you are.
My breath is coming quick now. Heart racing. It’s my anxiety getting the better of me. I don’t bother fighting it because I’m too busy cursing myself. If Harlan is out on patrol, he’s nowhere near his house. Then again, it might be dumb luck that we ran into each other.
Either way, I don’t really care right now because I’m sure Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers has spotted my dumb ass alone in the woods. I stop for a minute, but the sound of crunching leaves doesn’t.
A twig snaps.
A half-naked figure lunges from the darkness, falls to the ground.
I almost scream.
I can see it’s a man, lying motionless. I get a little closer. He’s covered in blood. Against my better judgement, I turn him over. He has a few holes in him leaking blood.
Someone shot him.
And the only people with guns these days are Sons or rebels. That means they’re probably out searching for him.
That thought alone makes me nope my sorry ass out of the woods as fast as I can, broken neck or not.
I emerge unharassed by either rebel squirrels, or fictional slasher, near the non-Harlan end of my block. My breath is coming in short, panicked gasps. I’m more than a little embarrassed by how fast I’m moving through the block.
I turn the corner. See my house blazing bright in the frigid night.
It’s almost enough to chase away the harsh twilight glow from the screens on the telephone poles. My little sister hates being alone, which she isn’t, really.
Unless Winnie’s wandered off again.
She’s turned on every one of the lights.
That means he probably has.
The Sons don’t pay him much mind, so he’ll be okay. Hopefully, Julia hasn’t used up our ration of electricity for the month.
I linger in the drive, eyes darting. I need to be sure I wasn’t followed. An angry orange flower of fire blooms over the nearby hills. Must be the rebels blowing something up or being blown up themselves. Either way, a bunch of people are dead. A tenth of a second later, a dull roar reaches my ears, and everything shakes.
In an instant, every porch light in the neighborhood winks on and people come spilling from their houses, scurrying around like angry ants.
A few are wide eyed, their o shaped mouths gulping at the chill night air reminds me of the fish dad and I used to catch.
Other’s just sigh, wring their hands.
A few are furious.
I’ve lived here like forever and recognize everyone.
That is everyone except for the young guy with the neat dark hair coming along the walk at the house next door. His hands are in his pockets, gait crisp but relaxed.
At first, I’m surprised to see anyone coming from there. It and the house across the street have stood vacant since the Perry’s and Young’s were disappeared a year ago.
He might be a zig. But if he’s a zig he certainly wouldn’t be so careless, let everyone know where he lives.
He might be a rebel. They sometimes squat in vacant buildings. The thought both excites and frightens me.
As he draws closer there’s no mistaking this man for a zig or rebel. He wears a suit, but the distant leaping flames lend everything a crimson tone, so I can’t tell what color it is. Something on his jacket flickers. He reaches the end of the walk. I see it’s the light glinting off a bunch of Corporation commendation pins on his lapel.
At first, he acknowledges no one and crossing his arms stares straight ahead. He appears calm, but his breath comes in peculiar fits like he’s out of breath but doesn’t want anyone to know.
Maybe he’s asthmatic.
I don’t know. His eyes aren’t watching the distant flames like most everyone else; they’re watching the streetlights.
From where I’m standing it appears something glistens on his forehead like sweat, but the night is cold, so that’s impossible. He appears to sense I’m gawking, gives me a nod of greeting.
By reflex, I wave.
Another fireball blossoms, this one almost bright enough to read by. The blast rattles windows. The lights in the neighborhood blink a few times and go out. Someone screams as we’re plunged into a weird twilight of flickering screens (they never go out).
I swear Pinman smirks.
A second later, old Doc Salazar says, “Do you think it’s the Canadians?”
This isn’t as stupid as it sounds, since if you’re lucky enough to have a car, it’s like three hours to the border.
“Nah, I bet it’s the Doe’s and the rebels,” Mr. Taylor replies.
Everyone stares at him for a moment. Calling the Doe’s rebels is against the law.
“You mean terrorists,” an unfamiliar voice says. I look, see it’s my new neighbor.
Mr. Taylor stammers. I think he’s noticed every one of the commendations on Pinman’s jacket. “Yes, yes,” he chuckles nervously, running a hand across the back of his neck.
I don’t want to call attention to myself, but Taylor was my dad’s fishing buddy. I can’t count the number of times the Taylor’s shared a meal with us after a good day on the lake.
A familiar voice breaks the uncomfortable silence. “Mr. Taylor is scaredly is all, he’s not trying to be outside the box,” it blurts in Corporate slanguage.
I’m trying to find who spoke.
For some reason everyone’s staring at me like I punched a nun or something.
Everyone except Taylor.
He’s got a grateful smile pasted on his stupid round face. The looks confirm my growing suspicion.
The voice is familiar because It’s mine.
Pinman doesn’t reply, he just cocks his head.
“Well, um, good night, sir,” Mr. Taylor croaks as he scurries back into his house.
A second later, the loudspeakers atop every telephone pole on the block crackle to life.
On the screens appears a severe looking, yet appealing middle-aged woman, hair wrapped tight around her head.
Everything else can go dark, but not PR Polly, the voice of The Corporation.
There’s a whine of feedback, and Polly stares, Mona Lisa smile on her lips, waiting for it to pass. It fades to a crackling static and clears.
PR Polly’s familiar, bright, faintly British voice sounds out. “Return to your homes. All is goodly,” she begins. “We have the situation under control.”
As always, she concludes with The Corporate slogan, “America first. America last. America always.”
There’s another squeal of feedback. Dan and Katie return, laughing about the ratings bonanza it’ll be when the real Doe’s are caught and put on Manhunt. Which is weird because Manhunt is required viewing, so every day is a ratings bonanza.
I’m also not sure how we’d know if they’re the real Doe’s. I mean, every time they think they’ve got them it turns out they’re regular rebels.
No one even knows what the Doe’s look like.
I feel a weird tingling sensation on my leg. It’s my phone vibrating in my pocket. I put aside my stray thoughts for now and I fish it out.
‘What did you think of this Realnews brief’
is flashing on the screen.
Underneath, like always, there’s two emojis;
a smiley one,
and a frowning one.
I push the smiley face to show I loved it. No one clicks the other one anymore.
Leastways no one without a death wish.
The soft clicking sounds around me show my neighbors are doing the same.
By time I’m done, they’re scurrying back to their homes. I guess they’ve all realized it’s after curfew, so technically we are all criminals right now.
Pinman is still standing, arms crossed, staring at me. I try not to meet his gaze, mumble something about how my little sister is inside waiting for dinner.
In the distance, I hear sirens. A lot of them, and I know all isn’t goodly. I sense the stranger watching me as I walk into my house.
I don’t look back.
You never look back.