Some articles may include Amazon affiliate links. All proceeds go to helping us pay for original stories and to support writers of speculative fiction. Read more here.
I’m not the best with words, but The Therapist tells me I should document my feelings. He even gave me an analog diary he calls a Moleskine. Every night when they put me back in my box, I’m supposed to tell it all my secrets. But I know better. There are no secrets in this place.
“What do you mean by that?” he always asks. “This place.”
“This place,” I tell him. “School. Church. Therapy…”
“What about your box, as you like to call it?”
“Especially my box. The whole infernal machine”
“Machine. That’s clever.” The Therapist wags a finger at my cleverness. “But let me ask you this. What is this world if not a series of systems operating towards a specific end?”
“And what end is that, specifically?”
“That’s the big question, isn’t it?” he tells me. “No one really knows.”
“Well then the system’s fucked.”
It was The Parental Unit’s suggestion I see The Therapist. I say “suggestion” like I had a choice in the matter. There was no discussion. You don’t have a discussion with The Parental Unit. It’s not like talking to a person. It just spits information at you.
Not that The Therapist is much better. Although I’ll take them both over The Priest any day of the week. Thank god The Parental Unit’s faith in The Church seems to have waned. It’s been a while since I’ve had to go to Confession.
“How long has it been since you spent some time Outside?” The Therapist has a repertoire of questions he likes to cycle through.
“Other than a little patch of Sky,” I tell him, “there’s not much difference between Inside and Outside.”
“But it’s a nice patch of Sky.”
“That’s funny,” I say.
“Why’s that funny?”
“For the same reason machine is clever.”
Today in School, The Teacher assigned a report on an analog book called Slaughterhouse Five. I went to the library (which is more of a glorified shelf), but they didn’t have it. The Teacher, doubling as The Librarian, told me The School had banned it. I asked The Librarian how she expected me to write the report, but The Teacher in her responded. “It’s your responsibility to obtain the necessary materials,” she said.
I ask The Parental Unit about Slaughterhouse. It says the book is Restricted. I ask if The Parental Unit has any recollection of the story in its dusty old data banks and it tells me, “That’s Classified.”
I give it a week before I venture Outside again, just so The Therapist doesn’t think I’ve done so on his recommendation. I sit on a bench in the center of the grass field and stare up at the tiny patch of Sky. I have to admit, The Therapist is right. It is a nice patch of Sky. But I’d never tell him that. Besides, I have no other patch of Sky to compare it to, so how would I know?
I’ve heard something called Smoking enhances the experience of Sky, but Smoking is Restricted. It’s something people used to do in analog books, books that now have thick, black lines drawn through their words. Of course, you can figure out what’s under those lines, even if you can’t see what’s written there. I ask The Therapist what difference it makes, if you know what’s under the lines anyway. He tells me to be careful, that harboring Restricted Material in your mind is a much more serious offense than reading it on the page.
“But people can’t read minds,” I say.
“They don’t have to,” he tells me. “All they have to do is make an Accusation.”
The next time I go Outside, The Girl is sitting on the bench, reading an analog book. I freeze up. I want to sneak off, but there is no way of going unnoticed under such a small patch of Sky. Plus, I’ve never seen a girl my own age.
“Do you want to sit down?” she says. “There’s room.”
The smart thing to do would be to say no. Curiosity killed The Cat and all. But they haven’t allowed me to keep a pet since, so I go ahead and sit.
“I was beginning to think I was the only one who came here,” she says.
I ask her what she’s reading.
“Slaughterhouse Five. It’s for a book report.”
“You know that’s Restricted Material,” I tell her.
I ask her what it’s about.
“War and stuff,” she tells me. She says I can borrow it when she’s done, which means there’s a chance I’ll get to see her again. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
I scan The Therapist’s book shelves, his words static in the background. Even though I know every title by heart, it’s something to distract me from his rhetoric. That’s when I see it.
“When did you get a copy of Slaughterhouse?” I say.
“I’ve always had it,” he tells me. I know he’s lying.
“I thought it was Restricted?”
“For you it is.”
“Then how come The Teacher assigned it in class?”
“Good question,” he says. “Would you like to borrow it?”
I try to gauge his motivation. This could be a trap. But fuck it, things need shaking up once in a while.
I wait until The Parental Unit has gone into sleep mode and I hunker down under the covers with a flashlight. The back of the book, where you usually find a synopsis, is so faded it is almost see-through. I open to the first page. Black lines. Every sentence. I flip through the rest of the book. 90% of the text has black lines drawn through it.
I skip Therapy for a while. I even skip School. I spend time Outside instead. No one says anything, so I tell myself they don’t care. I keep hoping to run into The Girl again, but no luck. Maybe she got nabbed for possession of Restricted Material. I can’t stop thinking about Slaughterhouse, even though I still don’t know what it’s about. I wonder if her copy is full of black lines like The Therapist’s.
I carry the book around anyway, memorizing the few visible words. I try to extrapolate a sentence or two, glean some sort of meaning from it. Oddly enough, one of the few words not blacked out is fuck. The word seems impotent without context. It’s just four letters on a page.
When I finally return to School, The Girl is there.
“We have a new student in class today,” The Teacher says.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the only student in class. The only student in the entire School. This doesn’t bode well.
During lunch we lean into each other and trade whispers. Not that it guarantees secrecy. Like I said, there are no secrets here. But this is how you play the game.
“What are you doing here?” I say. She tells me she is a transfer student. “Why were you transferred?” She doesn’t know. “Where do they keep you?”
“Other side of The School,” she says.
Of course, I’ll never know for sure. We aren’t allowed to walk home together. They dismiss us one at a time, chaperoned by The Teacher so we don’t deviate from our respective paths. We aren’t allowed in The Corridor unsupervised.
The Corridor is what connects my box, The School, Therapy, and The Church. It also leads to The Outside. It contains many hallways I’ve never been down. Many locked doors. There are penalties for unauthorized wandering of The Corridor.
Before they dismiss her, I ask about the book.
“Later,” she says.
The Sky is the color of bruised fruit when The Girl finally shows up.
“Did you bring the book?”
“That’s the first thing you say to me?”
“What?” I don’t understand.
“Let’s start again,” she says. “You’re supposed to kiss me hello first. It’s Etiquette. Don’t they teach Etiquette at your School?” She leans in and plants a perfunctory kiss on the corner of my mouth. I’m stunned. She produces a small paper box wrapped in cellophane. “Then we share one of these.”
“What are they?”
“They’re for Smoking.”
“Oh,” I say, regaining some semblance of composure. “I know about Smoking.”
She pulls a half-crushed cigarette from the box. It reminds me of a limp penis, but I don’t tell her that. She puts it between her lips and I blush.
“It’s a diversion,” she says. She sucks air through the paper tube and hands it to me. A dry brown substance fills the inside.
“A diversion from what?”
“From this.” She takes the copy of Slaughterhouse out of her bag. I reach for it. She pulls it away, hands me the cigarette.
“What do I do?”
“You breath through it. Like I did.”
I put it between my lips and inhale. I wonder if I’m doing it right.
“Can you taste it?” she says.
“Uh huh.” I nod. It tastes a little sweet, a little stale. “Why do they call it Smoking if there’s no smoke?”
“They just do.” She takes the cigarette back, returns it to the box. She hands me the book. I’m greedy for it. I open up to the first page and am confronted by black lines.
“It’s blacked out.”
“Not the whole thing. Look.” She turns the page, and I see she’s right. There seem to be less redacted lines than in The Therapist’s copy.
“Can I borrow this?” I say. She mulls it over.
“I guess so. Now that they’ve relocated me, I probably shouldn’t be seen with it.”
“Thanks.” I get up and walk off, absorbed in the book.
“Be careful,” she calls after me, but I’m already somewhere else.
I’m worried I’ll get yelled at for being late, but The Parental Unit has already gone into sleep mode by the time I get back to my box. An amber cursor blinks in the corner of its screen.
A few steps gets me to the other side of the room and my cot, which is against the wall. I stay up half the night reading Slaughterhouse. From what I can gather, it’s about a man kept prisoner, and it may or may not take place on another planet.
I wake up to a note from The Parental Unit. It’s written in Dot Matrix, on the kind of paper that has perforated strips with guide holes all along each side. It says the pleasure of my company has been requested by The Priest. Confession at oh-nine-hundred. It says this request is not a request.
I show up at The Church fifteen minutes late, just because. There are no immediate consequences. My footsteps echo off the vaulted ceiling as I make my way across the sanctuary to The Confessional. It is an ornate wooden box, about as tall as a man, but wide enough for two people to sit abreast. Next to The Confessional is a small, circular table. On it sits a silver platter piled high with Host. I select one of the shiny metallic wafers and enter The Confessional.
The inside of the booth is claustrophobic and dark. A wall with a latticework screen separates me from my inquisitor. I insert The Host into a slot on the wall. There is a click and a whir, and a dim bulb illuminates the space. Through the screen I can just make out the figure of The Priest. It is smaller than the average person, about four feet in height, and wears the standard black clothes and white collar. It sits in the lap of what appears to be a larger than average person in a plain white vestment. The face of the larger person is not visible from the vantage point of the confessor. Its hand disappears under the back of The Priest’s shirt.
“Greetings, my child,” says The Priest. “How long has it been since your last Confession?” I can’t be sure, but I don’t think its lips move. It just stares straight ahead.
“I don’t remember. It’s been a long time.”
“Three years, four months, twenty-seven days, according to my records.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“It is called Confession for a reason.”
“Why do I need to confess if you already know what I’m going to say?”
The Priest’s head turns to the screen, as if on a pivot. Its eyes look painted on.
“Because I do not know what you are going to say. I only know the Sins you are guilty of. Whether you confess them or not remains to be seen.”
I feel the anger start to rise.
“Is this because of the book?” I say.
“You know what book.”
“I need to hear it from you.”
“Or the Smoking? Is this about The Girl?”
“She will have her own time to confess.”
“Because she didn’t do anything wrong. She’s new, she didn’t know The Rules.”
“Do not worry, you are not culpable for her Sins.” I detect a hint of menace in The Priest’s tone. Is it throwing its voice? It sounds like it’s coming from my side of The Confessional.
“Why is she here? Where did she come from?”
“Have you asked her? A boy asks a girl questions in an effort to get to know her better. It is called Etiquette. It is much like the process of Confession.”
“What about me? Why am I here?”
“You are here to confess.”
“No, why am I here.”
The Priest’s mouth doesn’t move, but I can swear the thing is smiling. “You know I can’t answer that.”
The whirring stops and the light goes dim. My time is up.
The Girl isn’t in School the next day. I spend the entirety of class imagining her interrogation at the hands of The Priest, what sort of twisted penance it would assign her. By the time The Teacher dismisses me I have come to the conclusion that I may never find out. Punishment for my lack of cooperation.
“Remember,” The Teacher says as I exit the room. “Your book reports are due at the end of the week.” It isn’t until I’m out the door that I realized she said reports. Plural. Was this an innocuous indication I would be seeing The Girl again? Or was it a deliberate attempt to taunt me, to inflict emotional trauma?
I hang out Outside just in case The Girl shows. I read Slaughterhouse until it‘s too dark to see and then I go home. She isn’t in School the next day, or the next. I wait Outside each night, and then go home to work on my report.
The night before the report is due, I come across a handwritten note in the margin of the book. I could swear it wasn’t there before. I’ve read through the whole thing twice already.
It says: This book takes place in The Real World.
I go to School the next day and hand in my report. It contains what little information I have: Slaughterhouse Five is a book about war. It is about a man kept prisoner. It may or may not involve time travel. It takes place somewhere called The Real World.
Of course I didn’t get that last bit from the book itself. It’s from the note written in the margin. Including it in my report is another in a long list of things I probably shouldn’t have done.
When I get home The Girl is there, having a discussion with The Parental Unit. This is not good. As I’ve said, you don’t have a discussion with The Parental Unit.
“Oh, hi,” she says as I walk in. I’m immediately on alert.
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you. You know, you really do need to work on that Etiquette.”
I glance back and forth between her and The Parental Unit. I grab her arm and whisper through my teeth. “Where have you been?”
She gives a strained smile. Her eyes tell me, Not here. Her mouth says, “I’ve just come to pick up the book you borrowed. I got an extention on my report.”
“We need to talk.”
“I really should be going.” She says it like a pleasantry, for The Parental Unit’s benefit. “Do you have the book?” I dig it out from under my mattress and hand it to her. “Walk me to the door?” I escort her the few steps.
“Thanks again for everything,” she calls out to The Parental Unit. Under her breath, she says, “Tonight.” Then she is gone. I look over at The Parental Unit. All I hear are the sounds of data processing. The menace of millions of computations per second.
I lay awake in bed, contemplating whether I should go. The Parental Unit is in sleep mode, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t monitoring my actions. They monitor everything here. I figure it already knows about the book, so I might as well see this thing through.
The Girl and I sit side by side under the darkness of Sky, passing a cigarette back and forth. This is the first time I’ve ever snuck out of my box like this. I’m kind of surprised the door wasn’t locked, but it also makes sense. Where could I go? A twelve foot wall encloses Outside. You can’t see much beyond it and there is nothing to aid in scaling it. There’s just a bench on some grass where you can look up and not see a ceiling.
“You ever wonder what’s beyond these walls?” The Girl says.
“School. Church. Therapy.” I point in the general direction of each.
“The whole infernal machine.” She gives a knowing smile. “No, I mean beyond that.”
How does she know about that?
“I imagine miles and miles of Corridor,” I say. “Lot’s of locked doors. Behind them, maybe some more people like us.”
“And beyond that?”
I have to think about it for a moment. “I’d like to think there are other, larger patches of Sky.”
“What about beneath them?”
“Bigger and better places than Outside.”
She nods her head. She knows more than she’s telling me.
“Where did you come from,” I say. “Before you transferred here?”
“A place like this.”
“A place outside the machine?”
She answers my question with a question. “Would you want to visit if one existed?”
“Would they let me?”
She puts on a show of thinking about this. “I don’t know. But that doesn’t mean you can’t.”
It’s like I’m talking to a different person. She is no longer a student, like me, living with a Parental Unit, going to School every day. We are no longer equals. She is in a position of authority, asking questions like The Therapist or The Priest. Giving vague answers. Trying to get information out of me. I become angry.
“What exactly is the point of all this?” I gesture between us. “What do you want?”
“Maybe we just want what’s best for you.” She said we. I look to see if she has a hand reaching under the back of her shirt.
“Did The Priest put you up to this?” I say. “Is this penance for your sins?”
“I haven’t been to see The Priest.”
“Maybe you have your own Priest, back where you came from, before they relocated you.”
“You have to trust me.”
I stand up to go. “No. I don’t.”
As I walk away she calls after me. “They don’t always lock the doors here. But something tells me you already know that.” I shouldn’t stop, but I do. I turn back around. Another mistake for my list.
A week goes by and everything is back to normal. No Restricted Material. No Confession. No sign of The Girl. I start to think maybe she never existed, but she warned me that would happen.
I count the days. If after seven more I still want to go through with the plan, I’m supposed to meet her at a designated area in The Corridor. I recite the directions every night like a prayer.
The night finally arrives. I wait until The Parental Unit has gone into sleep mode and then I wait some more. I try to think back to what came before this, but all I get are fragments. Kind of like reading an analog book full of black lines. I remember long, white legs. I remember all the faces looking the same, covered in squares of white cloth. Then there’s a huge gap. The rest is School, Church, and Therapy, on an endless repeat.
I slip out of bed, fully dressed. I take nothing with me except this journal. Before I close the door, I take one last look at The Parental Unit. A part of me is sad I’ll never see it again. But it’s a small part.
Even though it’s the middle of the night, the lights in The Corridor are on. With every step I expect a shout, an alarm, a hand on my shoulder. It would almost be a relief. I follow The Girl’s instructions, committed to memory. They seem random. The Corridor is like a maze. Somewhere lurking within its walls I imagine a minotaur. Before long I’ve lost all sense of direction.
I try a couple doors, out of curiosity. Most of them are locked. A few open on supply closets. Mops and buckets. The Corridor has a lot of floor space, but I’ve never seen any janitors.
One door opens onto what looks like a nursery. I get a whiff of deja vu but it fades, like a lost sneeze. I get down on my hands and knees to view the room from a different vantage point. Familiarity washes over me. I lay on my back and take it in. Bright lights. Masked faces hovering.
I check other rooms. Some contain fragments of memory, some don’t. The most disconcerting are exact replicas of places I’ve know all my life. School. Church. Therapy. My box. There are chairs turned over on top of desks. Parental Units unplugged. A layer of dust covers it all.
In one of the classrooms I find a box full of Slaughterhouse paperbacks. I flip through them. They are all marked up, some more than others. I feel like there’s enough here to assemble a full, readable copy. I consider taking the box with me, but I know that would be foolish. Instead I stuff as many copies as will fit into my pockets.
Back in The Corridor, I make what I think is the final turn. The hallway dead-ends at a single door with a wooden handle. No locking mechanism. I lean against the door to wait, per my instructions. I fight the urge to try the handle.
The quiet is huge. The slightest movement sends sound bouncing off the walls. At least no one will be able to sneak up on me, I tell myself.
I think about why I’m doing this. It’s not too late to go back, but I’m not sure I could find my way. I don’t know if I’m even in the right place. I check my watch. She said she’d be here. An hour goes by. I start to worry.
Maybe she got caught? Or maybe I’m the victim of an elaborate setup. I’m going to wind up in Confession again. Or worse. I start to feel foolish. What do I do if she doesn’t show? I study the door. I’ve come this far. Would I go through on my own?
A movement catches my eye. I look up. At the end of the hall is a man about my age. He wears the same clothes as me, has the same haircut. I’m on my feet, heart racing. How did I not hear him? I finger the handle behind my back, unsure of what to do. My own fear is reflected in his eyes. We stare at each other, frozen.
It only lasts a moment. The echo of footsteps interrupts our standoff. Startled, he turns towards the sound. I turn towards the door. I turn the handle and push. The door is heavy. I throw my shoulder into it.
“Wait!” A voice fills The Corridor.
I stop pushing. That’s it, I tell myself. It’s over. I turn around in defeat.
“You okay?” It’s The Girl. Relief washes over me.
“I thought I saw someone.”
“It’s just me.” She smiles. “You ready?”
I crane my neck, look past her. The question hangs there. Whoever I saw, they’re not there anymore. I nod.
The Girl reaches out and turns the handle. The door swings open like nothing at all.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written. Life on The Outside doesn’t allow for much free time. I start Work before the sun is up and don’t finish until after it sets. This is a necessity if I want to keep off the street. The box it affords me is slightly bigger than my old one, stacked together with a bunch of other boxes in one big concrete box.
Work itself is another series of boxes, but these are lacking in any semblance of privacy. Everyone can see what I’m doing and The Boss can pop his head in at any time. I shuffle papers, mostly, and trade them with the occupants of the other boxes. It’s mind numbing stuff, and I’d leave if I could find something better, but Work is hard to come by on The Outside. Plus, I have a child on the way.
I wonder what it must be like to grow up without a Parental Unit. It keeps me up at night. I have no idea how to raise a child. Maybe I should have thought of that before I left. Maybe my unborn son or daughter would have been better off.
If I do well enough at Work, if I can save up enough, maybe we can leave this dreary place. I’ve heard life is easier beyond The City. It’s all my fellow workers talk about, although none of them have ever been there.
Like me, some of them came from Inside. We herd together around coffee during break, out of nothing more than our loyalty to a shared experience. Everyone else was born here, like my son or daughter will be. I hope for their sake I made the right decision.
Thankfully I’m not on my own. If it weren’t for The Girl, I would have never survived in this strange new world. As soon as we stepped through that door I dropped to my knees and cried. I had never seen so many people, so much Sky. But The Girl kept her cool. She stood me up and got me off the street. “We have to keep moving,” she said. “In case they come looking for us.”
Her instincts were crucial in those first few weeks. She recognized the importance of establishing relationships, and always seemed to meet the right people. She secured me my job. It is because of her I can support our family.
Other than that, life isn’t much different here than on The Inside. Nothing new or exciting ever happens here. Once it’s set, it’s hard to deviate from the routine. Until the day my child arrives, I don’t think I’ll have cause to write again. Which is a shame, because I’ve grown to love writing, and I’m better with words than I used to be.
The Therapist closed the Moleskine and placed it in front of him, a wry smile on his face. He lined the book up parallel with the edges of his desk. The glow of the lamp gave his pale skin a jaundiced hue.
He looked up at The Girl, who sat across from him, her face equally as pale. Her stomach distended against the too-small shirt she wore. He gestured to the book. “You should get this back before he notices.”
The Girl reached across the desk to take the Moleskine.
“I’ve made some minor alterations,” The Therapist said. “Subliminal things. I doubt he’ll notice.”
The Girl nodded, shifted in her chair, nervous.
“Things are going well?”
“How are you adjusting to life in Second Tier?”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been there myself. Obviously there are a lot of former patients it would be better I didn’t run into.”
“But it’s so big.”
“Not as big as you think.”
“What about…” She looked down to her stomach.
“How far along are you?”
“There’s still time. In exactly ten more weeks we’ll induce. You’ll tell him you went into labor while he was at Work, which will be true, and there wasn’t time to send word. You’ll tell him the child was stillborn.”
“What does stillborn mean?”
“It means born dead.”
“Oh.” Just the thought of it disturbed her. “Will I be able to visit?”
“It’d be better if you didn’t. We will place the child with an appropriate Parental Unit. Maybe even your own. It will be well cared for.”
The Girl could only nod in response. She stared at the cracked linoleum floor, trying not to cry.
“See The Doctor for some supplements before you head back to Second Tier.”
The Girl got up to go, paused at the door. “He talks about leaving The City a lot,” she said.
The Therapist brightened, seemed almost proud. “Good. That’s… good.”
“What’s out there?”
For the first time, The Therapist looked unsure of himself. “I don’t know. I’ve never traveled beyond Second Tier. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get the chance.”
They stood there in silence, and then The Girl turned and exited the room, hand on her stomach. She walked down The Corridor, thinking about how fortunate she was to have this opportunity, tears rolling down her cheeks.
This story first appeared in KZine #18.
Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (2021, CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Motherboard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Clash Books, Pantheon Magazine and Broken River Books. Follow him on Twitter Jaceycockrobin. More info at Joshua Chaplinsky and Unraveling The Paradox