This is Part 4 of a longer story. You can find the other parts here:
Toby felt a new weight on his shoulders when he finally arrived home. The long walk through meandering city streets had done little to relive it. It was a strange mix of anger, guilt, and shame that left him feeling as if he had crawled the entire way home.
He slumped into the wooden chair, elbows resting on the wooden table while his hands barely supported his head. He studied the fake woodgrain, eyes following it until they lost focus on began dancing back through his memories. Now, beyond the images of a convulsing body suddenly growing still, he had the wide eyes and fear of the stranger from the bus.
Not only that, but—but did he dare think it?
Could he, perhaps, have crossed the path of the man he killed? Had they walked past one another on the street? Dined at the same restaurant? Shared a seat on the bus? It was, after all, in his district. And while Toby was not one to often leave his safe little city and visit others, he did occasionally let adventure get the best of him. And who’s to say the young man didn’t travel himself? Or, came the thought that most shook his thin defenses, perhaps his plaza was not so far away at all?
His sandwich churned in his gut and threatened to return. He took a few deep, steady breaths even though they shook his entire body. His hand hurt, and he released his head to flex it slowly. This was just what he needed, he thought morosely. It was probably arthritis setting in. Maybe, Toby thought with a dark glimmer of hope, it would get bad enough that he could take a medical retirement and live off the state. Maybe, if he was lucky, it would be so severe he would not have to return to his desk and that screen and that damned button.
The chair creaked as he shifted, the only sound in his silent apartment besides the steady tick of the clock. The light coming in through the windows told him more time had passed than he thought, and the clock confirmed it. Toby stood and walked the two paces to the kitchen, his legs dragging behind him. H felt as if he were propelled more by sheer routine than any sort of will or strength. But staring blankly at the available food, he felt nothing but emptiness gnawing at his stomach. How could he consider food when he was already full on despair, he wondered melodramatically to himself.
Instead, he dropped back into his seat and slowly began taking off his jacket. Something crinkled as he moved, and Toby slowly retrieved the flyer from his pocket. The same words stared up at him, convicting him. He had been an executioner. Toby—mild-mannered, friendly, polite, keeps-to-himself Toby—was an executioner. Those words collided in his head, triggering off a flood of thoughts and memories that doubled and tripled into a chaos he had no hope of sorting through.
There was no rhyme or reason that he could see to the memories that came up. There was his first day of work, walking in with a smartly pressed shirt and overflowing optimism. There were solitary lunches watching the children play in the park under the watchful gaze of their parents. There was a little girl crying in the plaza because she had been running where she shouldn’t.
A date that earned him nothing but a look of pity and disgust. His mother’s funeral, the speaker grabbing his arm and smiling weakly. In the midst of all of it, there was a person lying on the ground, a cheap watch in their hands. Then there were the children who mocked him as a child. Scared eyes at the bus stop.
It was, he realized in an instant, a parade of some of the worst moments in his life. A montage of loneliness, shame, and sorrow. The map to a broken man, a man who didn’t even have the ability to stand up and not kill someone.
Executioner, Toby thought. Just a fancy word for murder. That was never who he wanted to be. That was not who his mother, rest her soul, thought he was. But how wrong they had both been.
Judge. Jury. Executioner. Toby stared at the flyer. The truth hurt.
For the first time, Toby really read the flyer, skimming over the three words that were now a constant echo in his mind and reading the rest of the information.
“Join us: Monday, 7:00pm at the Brewhouse Coffee Bar. Together we have a voice.”
Toby toyed with the idea. It was only a few days away, but would they even want him there? He thought about walking in to some generic coffee house, seeing the young, impassioned men and women standing around. They would be rallying for their cause. Dressed in black and berets, they all fixed him with cold stares. Toby wondered if they would know simply by looking at him what he had done, or if that would only come out in time. Would they turn on him?
He smoother the paper on the table and stared at it some more, as if it held the answers. When it refused to share any more, he finally stood up, walked to the bedroom, and fell into his bed where he was able to spend a few solid hours staring at his ceiling and battling away the thoughts that clawed through his memories.
Once the sun was up again, Toby oozed from his bed and to the shower. Every joint ached and his heart thundered in his head, each pulse sending a fresh ache through his eyes. The water did little to wash away the feeling of stale sweat and dirt that seemed to cake his body. He had spent most of the night sweating and tossing in his bed, chasing momentary respite that was always shattered by the infernal beep of his monitor prompting him to provide redirection.
He turned the shower off early, watching the minutes transfer into his reserves. The sound of water dripping from his body to the tiled floor came with a steady beat, almost hypnotic. He reveled in the feeling of cold chasing up and down his back as the water dried on his skin.
He dressed stiffly, left his lunch at home, and made his way to the bus. It was not until he reached the stop that he realized he would have to climb on and ride alongside the people who had seen him in such a frenzy. Had hey seen his outbursts?
As he climbed on, he noticed they diverted their eyes. Walking along the rows, he had the distinct feeling that the silence was new, created simply by his presence. They must have been gossiping about the events before he boarded, only quieting to protect themselves from the madman riding alongside them. Perhaps some had even made the connection between his stop and the events of the day before. It was not like the monitoring building went to great lengths to conceal its purpose.
He sat and stared at the floor, trying to ignore the feeling of their eyes crawling over him with morbid curiosity.
What if they knew the murdered man?
Toby did not know what dark part of his mind spent its time asking such horrific questions, but once there he was powerless to get rid of it. Now it swirled about him. He had no idea where these people lived or work. Any one of them could have known of the plaza. Maybe the man’s family was on board. His mind suddenly spun with stories of family members, hopeful that their son or brother or nephew had finally turned his life around. Only to get the news that he had been callously, impersonally, unjustly struck down by some nameless machine.
And now, Toby thought, they were forced to ride the bus with him and act cordial.
Some reasonable part of his mind tried to intercede and remind him that it was unlikely anyone on the bus knew the man or the plaza. They were probably all just ready to get on with their days, caught up in their own lives and worries. Unfortunately that voice was drowned out by the flood of a thousand other scenarios, each somehow worse than the ones that preceded it.
When his stop finally arrived Toby climbed off the bus, body a mix of relief and absolute dread. He was away from their eyes, but here he was, again donning the executioner’s mask as he walked through the doors.
“Taking lunch,” he typed to Dana as he transferred his screen. There was a happy tone as she responded, but he ignored it to turn around in his chair.
His eyes continued to pound, so he let them close. The air cycled through his office, a steady hum of equipment doing its job. Just like he did his job and kept the city safe. No point in getting angry at the air conditioning if it was too warm or cold in the office—it simply did as it was told. Just ike he did as he was told.
Thoughts drifted loosely through his mind as sleep overtook him. It was deep and dreamless, only broken by a sharp tingling arcing down him back.
He woke with a start clutching at his neck where the redirection started from.
“And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen…”
He had never signed up for this, he thought as anger swelled. But still he spun back to his desk and opened his screen to the plaza.
“You there?” was Dana’s message. There were others, but he ignored them. Instead he responded with a curt, “Yes,” and then closed the message. Replies came back from her, but he closed each one and focused on the screen.
Sure, he had fallen asleep, but shouldn’t there be some other way of reminding him? A bell or a system message or something? He worked tirelessly for them, but he made a tiny mistake and got no consideration. Someone somewhere watched him day in and day out as he did everything he could to be the best employee he could be, but they had no mercy.
Like, he reasoned, he had no mercy. Then again, he had no choice.
Then again, they had no choice.
His anger continued to grow, no longer focused on the nameless person in an office like his own. Instead, his ire grew for the smiling man in the suit. For the people who loaded a gun but made someone else pull the trigger.
It was their fault he felt so guilty. He was not an executioner; he never wanted to be. But they turned him into one, and then they weren’t even there to take responsibility for what they had done. Toby shouldered that burden for them, only to be punished by them.
The anger was a welcome relief from guilt, and Toby threw himself into it. It propelled him through the day until the closing alarm signaled and his screen transferred to whoever had the next shift. Whoever the next fall guy was.
Leaving the office, Toby skipped the bus stop and began walking the opposite direction of home. He needed answers, and he had an idea where they might be found.
Toby marched through the streets with single-minded ferocity. Something began to whisper that if he stopped, all the energy would drain from him in a moment, leaving behind the void that guilt so easily filled. And so he refused to slow down or pause. If he thought about it too long, he knew he would also fail and crumble back into the shell he had been for the past few days. There was a desperation in his action. That same cruel part of his mind assured him that, should he fail this time, he’d never find the courage again to make this journey. It was his one and only shot, or else he would be forced to succumb to a lifetime of despair.
Toby finally stopped, taking a brief moment to confirm he was where he thought. Brewhouse Coffee Bar, said the sign. With a deep breath that threatened to shatter his resolve, he gripped the handle and tugged.
I struggled with this part (hence the delay), but finally just had to get it out there. I feel like it manages to meander and move too quickly all at the same time. Not much happens here, but I do plan on some fireworks in the next part. I’m still not 100% on the final direction ( I have a handful of ideas, but not sure which I want to use versus drop), but I at least know the next few steps.
This is my first time in a long time writing something this long, so I’m trying to get into the flow with it. I think this is one section that will require heavy editing later, but it serves it’s purpose for now by creating the bridge I need between this introductory part and the rising tension. If you have any thoughts or insight on how to improve this section, please let me know in the comments. Hopefully I’ll have more out soon. I’m also working on another piece that is shorter, so hopefully I can figure that one out and get it up here before too long!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Toby stepped on the bus at the end of the day, a feeling of normalcy beginning to uncertainly percolate through his body. As he took his usual seat, he felt thoughts beginning to tingle at the back of his mind. Could he really be so cold and callous that a day after murdering someone he was back to normal? Toby tried his best to silence that thought, shove it back into the dark recesses where he had locked away images of a blank screen hiding a cooling body.
As if ignoring it would make it go away, something whispered, but he turned his attention to the safety warnings on the inside of the bus.
“PLEASE REMAIN SEATED WHILE THE VEHICLE IS IN MOTION.”
At the next stop, a new person got on board. Toby watched him climb aboard and settle in to the young woman’s usual seat, glad for some new distraction. After the fourth reading, the safety information became far less engaging, and he had already noticed his thoughts wandering towards that locked door in the back of his mind. He was a young man, dressed in casual, athletic clothing. Small beads of sweat stood out on his dark forehead, which made Toby think it was maybe someone returning from the gym. Or something like that. The weather certainly wasn’t warm enough for anything more. The man—boy?—sat on the edge of the seat, legs shaking up and down as the doors swung closed and the bus began to move. His eyes were distant, pondering something far more significant than the passengers on the bus.
As the vehicle accelerated from the curb and back onto its path, the man jumped up. He reached into his backpack, pulling out a handful of flyers.
“Excuse me,” began the boy—he certainly looked more like a scared child now, standing in the idle of the bus. His voice even cracked as he began. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and began again. “Excuse me, everyone. I have something I must speak to you about today.”
The bus home was always more crowded than the bus to work, and Toby watched the passengers around him roll their eyes and reach for books, music players, and other distractions. The boy scanned the audience, trying to find some eye contact to reassure him.
He found Toby’s eyes.
“I won’t take much of your time, but there are things going on that the good people of this city need to know.” He held Toby’s eyes for a beat or two longer, then began looking around trying to draw in more listeners. Toby new he had a minute or two before redirection would be applied for such behavior, and he could see the sweat sliding down his forehead now. The boy seemed to know he was on a clock.
“Did you know that just this week, a man was murdered in our wonderful district by the state.” He seemed to be reaching his stride now, growing more and more assured as he continued speaking. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard me. A man was murdered in cold blood by our government. His crime, you ask?” He paused, as if waiting for some sort of participation from his mostly annoyed audience.
Toby shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It certainly couldn’t be, right?
“His crime was stealing a hundred dollar watch.”
The bus suddenly became impossibly cramped and hot. Toby saw, clear as the man in front of him, the body lying on the ground, a silver watch lying forgotten on the ground. Officers placed the watch in a bag later, sealing it away as evidence. He had watched it all go on right before his eyes. And this was in his district? His plaza had been close all this time, which somehow made it worse.
“Of course, such activity is illegal, but is a man’s life,” he paused eyes wandering over his captive audience. A few people were looking at him now, faces a mix of curiosity and amusement, “is a man’s life worth a mere $100?”
Toby’s gut was in a knot, and he feared he might be sick. Surely, his mind told him, the boy standing on the bus would notice his pale features, the sweat dripping in slimy trails down his face, the look of pain and horror on his face. He might even call him out. Did the man know he worked for the government?
Did he know he was a murderer?
Any sense of normalcy that had been building was shattered, those tiny shards turning into daggers that drove through him body and soul. In fact, the feeling was even worse, coupled with a new wave of guilt. Toby had dared to think he could simply move on from that moment. Was there anything more reprehensible than that?
He came back to the message, catching the man mid-sentence. “…act and voice our concerns. We must make it clear that the surveillance, the unsupervised murder of citizens, and the culture of fear we live under daily is not to be tolerated. A man’s life is worth far more than a $100 watch. He deserved a fair chance. And yes, he deserved punishment. But a fair punishment.”
The man grimaced, and Toby checked his watch. Time was up. Based on the brevity and the rather muted response, it was a low-level redirection. But Toby knew that such mercy would not last long, especially not with as many buses ran in the city day in and day out.
“They don’t want me to tell you this,” the man said through gritted teeth. After a moment, he took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “I’ve just been redirected for telling you the truth. There was no trial for me, no fair allotment of punishment. You have witnessed it, ladies and gentlemen. And if you are tired of witnessing it, join with us. Together we can have a voice.”
He began walking down the rows, handing out a flier of some sort. Toby took one, keeping his eyes down. The man’s eyes scraped over him, and Toby was sure he would recognize what was going on. But instead, Toby watched the man’s sneakered feet drift down the rows and towards those seated in the back. Toby released an anxious breath he had not realized he had held for so long.
“JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER,” said the familiar flier. Beneath it, he saw a date and time, a location. “Join us,” it urged. “Together we can have a voice.”
Toby crumpled the flier and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket, trying to erase the images from his mind. Trying, once again, to lock those dark thoughts away. But they continued.
At the next stop, he bolted off the bus. Being on the sidewalk, he finally felt as if he could breathe again, and he took in a few deep breaths at the bus stop as people flowed on and off the bus around him. Toby closed his eyes, trying not to see that face twisted into a final mask of pain. It didn’t seem to help.
“Sir, seems like you really heard me in there,” said a voice behind him. Toby turned and saw the man from the bus, still holding his fliers. He smiled softly, stepping away from the crowd and closer to Toby’s sanctuary by the stop. “It can really shake you up, when you really think about it. Most people try to avoid it.”
Toby nodded quickly, breaking eye contact and considering running down the street. No he told himself, some part of his brain focused on survival still. Running would only confirm his guilt.
The man took a couple more uncertain steps towards him, studying Toby closely and trying to get a read on the sweaty, distracted, and distressed man in front of him. “I know it’s a lot to take in. It’s hard to believe any of your fellow citizens could be so…” the man searched for the word, then shrugged, “so awful. To just kill someone for something like a watch.” He gave a short, derisive snort.
Maybe, Toby thought, the man shouldn’t have been stealing in the first place. Maybe, it continued, everyone should just follow the rules. Maybe people should be able to ride the bus unnharassed by such terrible news. All those thoughts sprang to mind, fueling a fire of anger and hatred that he had not been aware of. Or, perhaps he had, but it had only been directed at himself. Now there was a new potential target.
“If you want to get involved—“ started the man.
“I’m already involved enough!” shouted Toby. He watched the young man’s eyes grow wide, as he took a step back and put his hands up.
The man was a boy again, scared of the angry stranger on the street. The fear in his eyes was enough to extinguish the anger. Maybe, he thought, he was just as monstrous as they said.
“Yeah, no problem, man. Sorry to have bothered you.” The boy backed away, hands still up and waving the fliers limply in the air. He took a few steps, then turned and walked away briskly. Running would get him another redirection, and Toby imagined his neck already ached. Still, Toby felt for him. He understood, because at that moment, Toby certainly wished he could run away from himself.
Part Four Now Up!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Don’t be confused, read Part 1 here!
Toby was still shaking, or at least he thought he was. It seemed as if he had done nothing but tremble since he had pressed that button eighteen hours ago. Well, tremble and vomit. He reported in as sick for the day, receiving a friendly note after his status had been confirmed. While the readout assured him there was no detectable pathogen, it did note evidence of recent emesis, abnormal sweating, and mental confusion. His sick time was dutifully logged and detracted from his bank.
Of course, it was not like he could stay away forever. Toby was acutely aware that he had no marketable skills, no connections in industry, and no money to better himself in any way. He would have to return to work the next day or risk termination, which was certainly only a breath away from homelessness and forced labor. He looked at his hands, waving softly in the air with fear of what they had done, and knew he would never survive forced labor.
He carried himself to the shower, pausing at the selection panel before entering the small, glass prism. The options were listed in pale blue font on a white background, tiny images of soap bubbles floating across the letters.
“Daily Shower……..Renews in 15 Hours
Relaxation…………..4 Credits Remaining
He stared at the options. It felt like an emergency, but he knew he would be charged if there was no evidence that he had been involved in some unexpected mess. And he certainly could not afford to lose his daily credits for the next week paying it back. Also, the one time he had been required to use that option, it sprayed him quiet violently with a stream of lukewarm water while emergency lights blared. Certainly not what his nerves needed. He begrudgingly selected Relaxation, acutely aware he was nearing his allotment there. It took too long to rebuild, but, if ever a day called for it, it was then.
The lights in the bathroom dimmed as soft flute music began to play. The water began as a slow stream, steadily picking up speed until it was drumming firmly along his shoulders. It smelled faintly of lavender.
Toby tried to relax. He closed his eyes, taking slow and steady breaths in time with the music. He tried to focus his mind on pleasant things. But behind his lids, the same image played over and over. The screen changed from a generic human going about their day—albeit stealing—to an image highlighted with urgency to nothing. It was the nothing that continued to haunt him behind his eyes. It was the nothing that was replaced by the real life images of a man in his thirties suddenly jerking and freezing, body held in stasis as his eyes rolled back in his head. Eventually, as the redirection ended, he collapsed to the ground.
His chest wasn’t rising and falling. Toby hadn’t needed to keep watching for his report, but he did. He watched the emergency team arrive, provide cursory attempts at resuscitation, and then close the body up in a hazard bag. Toby kept watching that spot the rest of his shift, even as it emptied and the sun rose on the plaza. He was fortunate the night was quiet afterwards; he was also certain he would not have been able to stomach another redirection, no matter how minor.
The nothingness was a lie, he realized. Because behind that nothingness was an empty husk of a body.
He had killed someone.
The words slammed into him again, caged with him inside the shower. The smell of lavender was nauseating, the feeling of the water unbearable, the music a grating screech. He couldn’t breathe—he was drowning in the steam.
Toby clawed his way out of the shower, flinging open the door and stepping out into the cool air of the bathroom. It did little to relieve the noose around his throat. The screen beeped at him, and for a moment he knew it was the chime on his work display screen. He had never escaped the office.
Whirling around, eyes wide as a cornered animal, he stared at the shower menu.
“Terminate Relaxation period? Relaxation Credits cannot be refunded.”
He swiped at the screen, selecting the yes option before stumbling out of the room. He was tired of small, enclosed rooms.
Toby didn’t know what he wanted or needed right then. Everything that had been fine was wrong now. He pushed into his bedroom, the sheets rumpled in the way that comes from a sleepless night. It was all cast in an artistic, almost sympathetic light, shadows deep with afternoon sun. Dust floated in the air, tiny glints and sparkles that seemed to be too peaceful, too idealized to exist in a world where he was an executioner. Toby felt his stomach turn again at the thought, but he knew he had nothing left to expel.
He sat on the edge of his bed, facing the window. There was a tree outside, limbs swaying gently in what must have been a pleasant breeze. For a moment, Toby was hypnotized by the steady, gentle movement of the leaves. It did what the shower could not and gave him a moment of peace, the briefest gift of separation. He was sitting in his room, watching the tree, and nothing was wrong.
Unfortunately, all relief was temporary. His thoughts were like a murmurration of starlings, briefly settling before being tossed into chaos once again. They had managed to rest briefly on the boughs of the tree outside his window, but the slightest breeze and they were off again, caught up in recollection and speculation.
How many people had been redirected to death?
What about the people he redirected. Sure, their numbers were small. But they grew, and he had seen it. What if he unknowingly pushed them over the edge?
What if he had thrown out more death warrants into the void for things as simple as littering or running?
His right hand had begun to tingle, almost as if it had been asleep. He stretched his fingers wide, massaging it with his left, but there was no relief from the gentle pinpricks. Toby shook his hand sharply, hoping to return blood flow. Only there was no numbness, no coldness. It simply tingled, and no amount of attention seemed to relieve it.
Toby fell back onto his bed, eyes closed and hands limp at his sides. Traitorous hands.
The light shifted behind his eyelids as the branches swayed, letting in more and less light. His eyes burned, either because he had spent the wee morning hours crying, or because he had not slept in nearly 36 hours. His mind spun, eventually managing to spin itself into more and more fantastic, bizarre forms.
Unwillingly, Toby fell asleep, where there was finally, truly, nothing.
The sound of his alarm woke him, and he groaned. He had not moved the entire night, but slept with his feet on the floor and back stretched across the bed. Now his joints ached. Standing and stretching relieved some of the tension, but there was a deeper ache that seemed unreachable. And his hand still felt wrong, but the feeling was at least milder now.
There was a day’s worth of stubble on his face, and his mouth tasted of sleep and vomit. Toby was glad there was no mirror in his bedroom, because he was certain he did not want to see how he looked Unfortunately, there was no avoiding it in the bathroom, and he had to meet his sunken-eyed gaze.
He selected his daily shower and climbed in, doing what he could to wash away the stink of sweat and despair that coated his body like a film. Normally he ended his shower early, banking the additional minutes for later use. But today he let the timer run out, giving the water at least a chance to wash away the memories of what had happened. It was more successful than the day before, but he was still stained by the thoughts. There was still a man carved out of nothingness behind his eyelids.
Toby shaved, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair. He inspected his uniform in the mirror, feeling more repulsed by it than he ever had. He was never a morning person, and leaving for work was often difficult. But it was now different. He was not just longing to return to bed. He was, instead, longing to vanish out of existence. Perhaps he could just be gone in a blink, an image on a screen one minute and gone the next.
He shook his head sharply to dispel the thoughts, his eyes staring back at him hurt and accusing in the mirror. With a deep breath, he reminded himself that he had a job to do. He was needed at his office, and he would complete his daily tasks. The thought of his small room, his screen, and his plaza was enough to throw him off balance again. It felt as if the bathroom had closed in around him, crushing his lungs so he could not gather one good breath. An image flashed through his mind, his head swollen like a balloon, eyes bulging, ready to burst. All the pressure was crushing in on him. Then, the world righted itself, snapping back into place like a rubber band releasing.
Toby left his apartment, uncharacteristically skipping breakfast. The thought of food conjured the taste of bile and sand in his mouth. He did grab his lunch, hoping that perhaps he would arrive to work and discover it had all been a huge misunderstanding. That nothing had ever happened. That it was a prank, a joke. Perhaps a system test? He tried his best to conjure alternatives along the walk to the bus stop.
There were five other people on the bus. There always were. And by the time he reached his stop, three of those people would have left and six more would have joined. Each person had their seat, though no one had ever acknowledged their communal seating chart. It was just how things went. Toby boarded the bus and took his seat, sitting beside the window where he could watch the city slide past. Only today he did not feel like looking at anything. He felt alone and vulnerable, as if someone had flayed off his skin and left every nerve exposed. Looking at the city was too much.
He wanted to reach out, to talk to the passengers, but no one did that. It wasn’t forbidden, certainly, but it was…deviant. It was invasive and rude. And so Toby bit his tongue, resolving instead to watch his fellow passengers rather than reaching out to them. He wondered how the older woman three seats ahead would respond if he told her he killed someone.
In his head, she smiled and patted his shoulder, genuine kindness and sympathy in her eyes. The teenager in the corner probably wouldn’t understand, would move away. Toby imagined he would see fear in the girl’s eyes. The gentleman with his paper would probably start by blustering about the cops, but would offer help later, once the details were out there. Toby imagined that man would have a long diatribe about the state of the government and law and order. He seemed like the type.
There was the young woman with her music. He was unsure how she would respond, as her face was always a stoic mask. He saw her reading a self-help book once, so he pretended she would be the one to offer actual help. She’d provide firm reassurances, maybe offer to buy him coffee. Toby’s mind wandered as he thought about the two of them sharing coffee, talking about what life had been like before he was a murderer.
Lost in his thoughts, Toby did not notice when she or the others left the bus. He also did not notice the arrival of his other companions, instead focused on building a life with the woman across the bus. It wasn’t until it came to a sudden stop in front of his building that his mind returned to the present, retreating from the light of his imagined future and into the darkness of his present.
His legs were leaden as he walked off the bus and through the wide doors of his office. He walked down the long hallway flanked on either side with doors. He never saw other monitors coming or going, though he sometimes heard music or talking from behind the doors.
How many of them were killers, too? Did they understand?
Toby paused in front of one door, hand half raised but frozen. He read and reread the notice on the door. “Do not disturb. Level one offense.”
The back of his neck, where his monitoring chip was located, prickled with each repetition.
“If you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong.” The words stomped over his thoughts, and he turned away from the door. He couldn’t risk it.
His chair was as he left it, his screen idling and awaiting his return. Upon logging in, he saw his plaza displayed. There was a decent crowd this early in the morning, though he noticed everyone seemed to eddy around one point on the map. That’s where the man had vanished, and Toby knew people were talking about it. Who wouldn’t?
But the rumors at least had the benefit of making it a very quiet day. There were no boisterous, running youth. No loitering, no littering. No theft. The plaza was quiet, almost somber.
Lunch time approached, and the routine of work had returned some of his hunger. He keyed in his lunch code and waited as his screen transferred. Dana’s name popped on the screen.
“Got you covered!” read her text. Toby felt a weight shift inside of him. There was another human out there who knew him. A moment later, another line appeared. “Glad you’re back!”
He was slightly surprised. “How did you know I was sick?” he typed quickly.
“I didn’t. Sorry you were sick. I thought you were out on vacation.”
She didn’t answer his question, and Toby felt a strange paranoia bubble in his chest. Could Dana be the one watching him?
Then another message. “Oh, and you never asked me to watch for lunch yesterday. I knew you must be out!”
As quickly as it appeared, the paranoia vanished. He was leaping at shadows. “Oh, right. Thanks.”
He marched back through the long, empty hallways. There were sounds coming from behind other doors, but no one else was walking to the bench outside for lunch. He sat alone, watching happy people go about their lives while he munched on one corner of his sandwich. With five minutes to spare, he dutifully wrapped up the untouched two-thirds and disposed of it properly before returning to his desk.
It was 2:30 before he had his first alert. His heart began to pound at the sound of the chime, hands sweating. On the screen, he watched an adult stand on the corner and hand out flyers. Such activity was banned within the shopping plaza, which meant redirection was needed. A level one only, but his chest tightened as he waited to hear the follow-up sound that meant the limit was reached. Only when the silence continued to stretch in the room did he dare look down at the input panel.
The level was still set at 10, a solemn reminder of his personal tragedy. Everything else in the world seemed to continue moving and spinning, but here, his dial was still set at ten. He swatted at the dial, swiftly returning it to one, but withdrawing his hand sharply as if it would burn him. The one looked much friendlier, but maintained a sinister quality that had not existed before.
It was taking too long, and the system beeped at him again.
“Failure to provide redirection WILL be reported and may result in termination,” offered a box on the screen. Toby took a deep breath. It was just a level one, he reminded himself. But his hand still bristled as he moved it towards the button, ached as he forced it down to press the small, grey circle. The image on the screen flashed with the redirection, then was gone. The figure on the screen, glanced toward the camera, a move Toby knew meant he or she was probably cursing at him, then moved on, papers in hand.
His report was almost cathartic. He looked at the middle-aged woman on the screen as she yelled and shoved flyers at passing shoppers. Then, there was the redirection, where a brief flash of annoyed pain scattered over her face. She glared up at the camera with irritation, her mouth moving in ways Toby did not try to make sense of.
Then, she held up one of the flyers to the camera. “JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER?” it read. Below the words were the adult and child images he watched day in and day out. She made a gesture before she left, and Toby did not have to wonder what that might mean.
Part 3 continues here!
I told you it would be back, and here it is! I will be editing as I go, so things may change as it goes. That’s why these are drafts. I’m not 100% sure how long this will be or where precisely it will end up (but I do have some ideas), but I hope you’ll join me for the journey! As always, please leave your thoughts, recommendations, and critiques in the comments!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Louisa scanned the search results, skipping over the hacks and scam artists she had already exhausted. She had discovered that there was a booming market for false psychics and paranormal investigators, each able to only provide momentarily relief to her problems. With problems like hers, she needed real help, but no one had been able to provide that.
She hovered over one of the remaining blue links, awash amongst a sea of purple. Campbell and Corey Supernatural Exploration Group, it said, and she begrudgingly clicked it. Hope had been drained from her, but she continued to move through the motions because she had no choice. The website was as lackluster as she expected. Rambling blog posts, action shots of the two founders—Campbell and Corey, she presumed—skulking through dark hallways. A handful of grainy videos and muffled sound files, then a contact form.
“Is your house or business haunted? Need some relief? The SEG is the answer you’ve been looking for!” She admired their exuberance, but she had read it all before. Still, she began to enter the information for what had to be the twentieth time since it all began. And still no solution.
There was a chill along her back, the feeling of ice slicing through her skin and burrowing into her body. “What are you doing, mommy?” asked the voice that resonated inside her own chest cavity. That was a feeling she never got used to, the way the sound of another’s voice traveled through her tissues and bones and through her ears.
“Just finding some friends to play with you,” she said with a forced smile and a tremor in her voice. While she couldn’t see her daughter in the room, she could feel the waves of suspicion and anger filling the four walls.
“Are they nice people, mommy? I didn’t like the last friends you found,” pouted the voice.
“I—I think so, honey. Very nice. Hopefully you can play lots of fun games with them.”
The anger dissipated, replaced with a slight warmth and excitement.
“When will they be here? Do you think they’ll want to play with my dollies?”
“I just invited them, so we’ll see.”
Louisa shivered and clicked the submit button, reading the cheery popup that assured her “Someone from the team will contact you within 3-5 business days.”
She only hoped it would not be too late.
“I appreciate you meeting me here,” she said, taking a long sip of her coffee. The sounds of the coffee shop swelled around them, full of warmth, laughter, and humanity. It was so good to be out of the cold, angry house. After a week of waiting, Jenny’s impatience left the house feeling like a predator waiting to pounce. Not to mention the nightmares. It was hard to relax, but Louisa felt some of the tension begin to melt, washed away by the bitter coffee.
“Hey, no problem. We’re here to help.” Campbell, as he had introduced himself, smiled widely. He was sweating slightly in the stuffy room, but she had thus far not seen a single chink in his optimistic presentation.
“No offense, but I’ve talked to a lot of people. How are you going to help?”
His smile bloomed, as if he had been waiting for that very question. “None taken! I think we offer something very different from our competitors. And there are a lot of them, as you’ve seen. You see, Corey, my partner, he’s our secret weapon. That’s why he doesn’t want to meet you until we do the actual walkthrough and investigation.”
“Secret weapon?” She attempted to sound interested, but her feigned support was flimsy.
“He’s a psychic, so he can sense things others cannot. Things our competitors are blind to.”
“Ah,” she said, turning her eyes down to her coffee. This meeting had been just as pitiful as she had expected.
“Which is why I do the initial interview and gather background. We don’t want him contaminated. But, rest assured, I’ll do all the research needed to discover if there is some supernatural explanation for what’s been going on.”
She smiled tightly, eyes darting up quickly. Strike one, they clearly had not read any of the information she sent them in the contact form. “I am fairly certain I know the source of the haunting,”
His smile faltered briefly, but was replaced so quickly she almost missed it. “Of course,” he said, laughing and striking his forehead lightly. “You mentioned that in your message. Sorry, long day. So, why don’t you tell me a little more about what happened? You’ll save me some time in the library!”
“Almost two years ago, my daughter fell down the stairs in our house while playing with a neighborhood friend. She was dead when I found her. Her friend had run home and hidden.”
Campbell nodded slowly, eyes slightly unfocused as he digested the short phrases. The silence extended, and Louisa felt a bubble of irritation. It was a fairly straightforward story, yet he seemed uncertain.
“And so,” he began after chewing the information, “you believe your daughter is haunting you?”
“I think that makes the most sense.”
He took that information in, adding it to the store as if it was some additional revelation. Louisa was at least relieved that his over-the-top smile had at least faded. “And what sort of things began after—“ he paused and looked at her expectantly.
“After Jenny passed?”
She took a deep sigh, followed by a large gulp from the coffee. Maybe, she mused, she should just type up a manuscript explaining the events, so she could simply pass it out to each team in turn. Then they would each be free to ignore it as they always did. “Well, it began with hearing her talking to me while I was alone in the house. Grief, they told me, and not abnormal. Then I noticed cold spots in the house, which everyone says is just the reality of living alone in a drafty house. Sometimes I feel her touching me, holding my hand. If I don’t respond, she’ll scratch me.” Louisa held up here hand, showing a collection of small, pink scrapes running along the back of her hand. “People stopped offering explanations then.”
Campbell just continued nodding each step along the way, smiling as if he knew what she was going to say before she even said it.
“Now she sometimes throws things. She’s tried to push me down the stairs. And when I sleep, she whispers nightmares. I can’t sleep without seeing her lying bloody on the floor, then it’s me lying there. Sometimes I dream that I’m lying there, unable to move or breathe as they carry me out and lad me into a cremator.”
“Did you have her cremated?” he interjected.
Louisa nodded quickly. “But I got rid of the ashes—sprinkled them at her favorite park—when all this started happening.”
“And how many times have you seen her?”
She narrowed her eyes and fixed him with a hardened gaze. “I never said I saw her. And I hope I never do.”
That finally broke the smile for good. “Of, right, of course. It’s just that normally, you know—“
“No, I wouldn’t know. I don’t think there’s anything normal about any of this.”
“Right.” He studied his coffee, she studied the top of his head.
“And are you alone in the house?” he asked after another painful pause.
“I am. Have been for a while now.”
“And Jenny’s father, is he—“
“He left about a month after her funeral. Died a couple of weeks later of a heart attack, holding onto one of Jenny’s dolls and lying in a roach-infested motel.”
“My condolences, ma’am. I know you’ve been through a lot.” His voice softened, as did his eyes, and Louisa felt herself soften just a bit. She had met so many people who offered the traditional sympathy, but he at least seemed genuine. Unintentionally, this opened a box of memories she had hoped were sealed shut. The image of him leaving the house, suitcase in his hand and tears in his eyes as he pled with her to leave with him. Her stubborn refusal—Jenny was her daughter, she had told him, and she would not abandon her in this life or the next. How much she regretted her decision now, months later, as the real cost of her dedication became clear.
“Did he experience any of these things?” he asked, his tone gentle.
She nodded, feeling those little pinpricks around her eyes that she was all too familiar with. “That’s why he left.”
“I see. And did things change after your husband’s death? Or have they changed at other times, perhaps?”
Her coffee had cooled from hot to lukewarm, but she sipped at it anyways. “Things got better a few days after he left, but then were back to the same. And it comes and goes. Sometimes it’s like she’s gone. But she always comes back.”
“And how is it now?”
Louisa laughed bitterly. “Oh, she’s definitely there now. If your team comes over, there’ll be no missing her.”
“Right, which brings us to the final point. Scheduling and payment.”
It took a great deal of self-control for her to resist rolling her eyes. Of all the hacks she had met, Campbell had been one of the better ones at playing at sympathy. However, his mask even fell when money entered the discussion.
“Of course,” she said with a taut smile. His smile was back, glowing at her as if he could not read the irritation in her eyes.
“So, how about next Tuesday? We’ll come by around seven to get set up, spend around 3 hours investigating the house, and be out of your hair before midnight?”
They always arrived at night, something Louisa could not make sense of. Jenny was equally active day and night, so the need to traipse through her house in the dark seemed more for theatrics than anything useful. Still, she had heard the nonsense about thinning walls between the planes enough times to know better than to push the issue. “Sounds great,” she agreed. “And the cost?”
“Well, we know a lot of people seek to take advantage of people in your situation.”
The irony of his words struck her, forcing an authentic smile to her face. Yes, all those terrible others.
“So all we ask upfront is the cost of travel and basic supplies. Things like tapes, memory cards, duct tape, and other minor things that we will need to set u and investigate.” He pulled a sheet from the portfolio at his side, passing it over to her. “Our office estimated costs for you at about $75.”
“And what about the other costs? The not-so-upfront ones?”
“Well, we do offer additional services following the results of the investigation. Corey, since he’s psychic and all, can help provide a cleansing or speak with the spirits. If you are interested in any of that, then we can talk price later.”
“Right. Well, I guess my peace of mind is worth $75,” she said, pulling out her wallet. She tried not to think about how many times she had said those words, the only thing changing being the dollar amount. Campbell seemed surprised when she withdrew a selection of bills, counting out $75 and passing it over the table. “I’ll see you next Tuesday at 7.” With that, she rose and threw out the last of the coffee, walking out the door and back to her waiting home. To her loyal daughter.
The cold, bristly feeling struck her as soon as she entered the front door. She felt Jenny twine about her insides, pulling so close that the two were virtually one spirit sharing a body.
“Did you find me new friends?”
Louisa had to grit her teeth to respond, the cold become an aching pain arcing through her bones. “Yes, Jenny. They’ll be here on Tuesday.”
The spirit moved on, leaving an odd emptiness deep inside Louisa. But the house felt warmer again, bustling with an excitement that she knew would fade within hours. Jenny was never entertained for long.
Less than a week, and then relief, she reminded herself. She just had to keep going.
There was no one at the door at seven, and Jenny was anxious. Louisa noticed the spirit darting from one end of the house to another, brushing through her with greater speed and intensity each time. “Where are they?” she asked during one pass.
Louisa shuddered. “They’ll be here. Be patient.”
“I don’t want to be patient,” she said as she whisked to the back door as if the strangers were going to come climbing over their fence.
“Should I play hide and seek again?” The questions continued to bubble up from her, each carrying a level of malice that tied knots in Louisa’s stomach.
“Yes, I think that will be very good. You always were so good at hiding.”
“They didn’t find me last time,” she said. “Only heard me that once.”
Louisa nodded, her knuckles turning white where they gripped the edge of the counter. Every time she thought she was free to take a step, that cold fire of Jenny’s presence rooted her to the spot. She remembered the garbled recording, the only evidence the last team had returned. They insisted it said “I love you, mommy.” Louisa knew it, in fact, was another of Jenny’s favorite phrases. “I’ll kill you all.” So much for their high end equipment and fancy recordings.
The knock came at seven fifteen, and Louisa opened the door to see Campbell and another man, who she assumed was Corey. They were carrying a few bags loaded with equipment, things she had seen before. They had cameras that recorded heat and IR, voice recorders, talking boxes, lots of coils of wire, EMF detectors, and other small electronics she had already forgotten the name of. Campbell shook her head and began to explain, but she waved him away.
“I’ve done my homework on this stuff. Spare me.”
He chuckled and continued laying out equipment as Corey, still silent, hustled around the house setting up cameras in what seemed to be every corner. “Funny you mention homework, because I did some of my own.”
Campbell pulled out a newspaper article from one of the bags, passing it over to her. “I know you were brief about what happened, but I found this story about it and I was wondering if there as anything else that might be helpful for us to know?”
Louisa knew the article on sight, but was pleasantly shocked. Campbell had been one of the few to do any sort of research, even the minimum required to find this. Her eyes skimmed the familiar words, the notes about conflicting reports. According to the article, Jenny’s neighbor friend had a different story. He said Jenny chased him around the house with a knife. He said Jenny was alive when he finally escaped, crying his way home to his parents. He said Louisa was there, looking angry, and that she looked so very sad when he and his mother returned. He said Jenny died when she fell down the stairs, but he had nothing to do with it.
With a curt nod, Louisa passed the paper back. “That was a bit of a mess. But they never found any evidence of what he said. Kids will say crazy things. Especially if they accidentally pushed their friend down the stairs.”
“Right,” said Campbell with his familiar, pleasant grin. “That sort of thing must be tough on a kid.”
“It’s tough on all of us,” she responded, feeling almost as if she were reading off the grieving, but understanding parent’s script. “Will you want me to stay around while you’re investigating?” The answers has been mixed from the different people and groups. Psychics usually wanted her around, presumably so she would be amazed at their feats of insight. Paranormal investigators usually ushered her out, citing a need to prevent contamination of the area. With this combined team, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“You’re welcome to join, but there probably won’t be much to see. Most of our information comes up in the review. Corey may have some things to add, but mostly he just asks questions and records. But,” he paused, rummaging through the bag, “we always bring an extra camera if you’d like to record with us!”
Louisa took the camera. This was new. She turned it on and spun it around here kitchen, watching the world through the viewfinder. For an instant, she caught sight of Jenny ducking around a corner with a giggle. Louisa smiled and hit the delete button, pushing that little piece of evidence into oblivion.
“Alright,” said a new voice. Corey was standing in the doorway. “Let’s get started.”
He marched away, Campbell grabbing a few implements off the table and hustling after him. As he left the kitchen, he paused to turn off the lights, plunging the house into complete darkness. Theatrics.
Corey made his way to the staircase, pausing for a moment at the bottom. “So here is where you found her when you arrived back home?”
“Yes,” said Louisa stoically, stifling the guilt from a little white lie.
Campbell nudged her. “I didn’t even tell him what happened!” he whispered, his eyes wide. Unfortunately, he was not the best actor she had seen, but she feigned amazement.
Corey looked pleased. “Yes, I felt something was off here. So much sadness, pain.” He pulled out a voice recorder, holding it out and spinning slowly in a large circle. “Are you still here? Would you like to talk to us?” The only sound in the house was the hissing of air vents, and occasional groan of an engine passing by on the street outside. “How can we help you?” he asked, staring up at the dark ceiling.
Campbell pulled out a small monitor, checking the temperature and EMF. “Everything’s normal here,” he said after a moment.
Corey smiled. “She must be a little shy. Let’s head up to her room, see if we can’t help her feel more comfortable.” With that, he began climbing the stairs toward the small second floor room. Louisa might have been impressed if he had not spent the evening roaming her house to set up cameras. It was easy to tell which one had once belonged to a seven-year-old girl.
The door opened onto a room painted pale pink, but appearing grey in the dim light. There were shelves lining the room, a treasure trove of various dolls sitting at attention. There had once been so many of them, but they had since dwindled. Louisa looked around, noticing one was missing. She soon spotted it seated at the small tea table behind the bed. Jenny had prepared for her guests, it seemed.
Corey bee-lined for the table, sinking down to his knees to get on the same level. “I feel a lot of happiness here, but some sadness. Like she’s joyful that she can still be her, but sad she can no longer play with her toys or friends.” He paused dramatically, face sculpted into a sorrowful mask. Slowly, he pulled out the recorder from his pocket. “Do you mind if I join?” he asked the darkness, holding out the recorder. His voice was to oud in the enclosed room, feeling almost as if he were yelling at the ceiling. Louisa felt a headache beginning to build in the back of her head, almost as if cold fingers were digging through her brain. But no one else seemed to notice the chill, and she was not about to bring their attention to it.
After a long pause, Corey reached out and lifted one of the plastic tea cups. Eyes roving around the room, he took one long, pretend sip from the cup. “Delicious!” he said with a smack of his lips. “Can I meet your friend?” he asked. Louisa marveled as she watched the grown man pantomime a handshake and rudimentary bow with the seated doll. Campbell’s screen still showed no changes.
She had to hand it to the two of them. Despite receiving no positive feedback, they dutifully worked their way through the house, pointing out possible attachments a spirit might have. Her husband’s study might be where she shared secrets and spent time with her father. Perhaps her spirit was grieving his loss, too, offered Campbell. Corey nodded astutely. The kitchen, of course, was where the family ate and she did her homework. Were there unresolved issues? A fight with her parents, perhaps? Louisa denied it.
“We loved each other very much,” she lied. She also neglected to mention they ate dinner in the dining room, not on the kitchen table that permanently housed her husband’s computer equipment.
The scoured the attic and basement, and Louisa occasionally felt ice creep along her back, heard a faint giggle as Jenny enjoyed her game of hide and seek. Campbell almost walked right through her once, but Louisa felt the spirit vanish before he could realize it. The only sign was a brief blip in temperatures. He opened his mouth to point it out, but the words died as the temperature returned to normal.
“A draft,” Louisa heard him whisper.
At eleven, they began turning lights back on and preparing to make their departure.
“We’ll call with what we found. May take us around a month to review everything and get it ready,” said Campbell, trying to remain positive. “And don’t worry. Most of the good stuff doesn’t show up until we review the tapes and all.”
She did her best to paint on an authentic smile, pouring gratitude into her words. “I really appreciate you coming out here to help. You don’t know what it means.” She had briefly returned to the bedroom to retrieve the doll Jenny had left, and now she held it in front of her. It was a soft, floppy doll dressed in a pale blue sun dress. Blue eyes were stitched on the face, along with a button nose and set of pale pink lips.
“You’ve given me such peace of mind and been so kind to my Jenny,” she began. They stood, watching her, clearly hoping for some kind of tip or reward. “I know she’d want you to have this. To remember her,” she finished, holding out the doll. They both did their best to hide their disappointment, but she had seen it before. Every team always thought this was some grand gesture of fortunes, and they were always irritated to find it a sentimental offer of a child’s toy.
Corey took it, holding it by an arm between two fingers. “Oh, we couldn’t—“
“Please,” she offered, laying a hand on his arm and drawing close. “Just as a thank you for believing me.” Campbell and Corey exchanged a glance, then both widened their smiles.
“Right, well, you’re welcome.” Corey shuffled stiffly out the front door, still holding the doll as if it might bite him. Louisa had the urge to tell him it wouldn’t be the doll that hurt him, in the end. But she held her tongue. She was getting good at that.
“We’ll be in touch,” added Campbell with his characteristic smile. With that and a tip of his head, he was gone.
Louisa closed the door, falling against it. She was once again wholly and completely alone in the house. It would not last, she knew, but she breathed a sigh of relief, no longer caged by the angry, petulant spirit of her daughter.
It had been nearly two weeks, and she was sleeping deeply, peacefully, and dreamlessly when there was suddenly a weight on the bed as something moved over the covers. Louisa sat up, feeling the cold presence settle onto her. For a moment, it was the same heft and shape as when Jenny used to crawl into her lap during a thunderstorm.
“You’re back so soon,” she whispered, half asleep and caught up in the despair of it all.
“I had to come back to you, mommy. I got angry with my new friends. Then they couldn’t play anymore.”
Tears began to slip from her eyes and down her cheek, falling through the cold mass and onto the sheets below. A cold sensation dragged along her cheek, wiping ineffectively at the stream of tears. “They won’t be able to play with anyone anymore,” said the voice, almost innocently. But there was that edge of glee, of jealous possession that haunted Louisa almost as much as the ghost of her dead daughter.
Louisa did not return to sleep that night. She could not stop thinking about the ghost hunters who finally came face to face with what they had been hunting. Only the never suspected it was hunting them as well. Guilt and panic fought for control, both eventually falling to her survival instinct.
Once the sun rose, Louisa carefully rose from bed and walked to the computer. She entered the search, flipping over to the second page to find new possibilities and trying not to think about what she might have to do when the list ran out.
Madame Ophelia, Spirit Guide. She clicked on the link.
Wow, ended up being way longer than I expected. I also feel like I may have rushed it in an attempt to get the idea out there. Depending on how I feel, you may see an update to this over the next few weeks. I’m onboard with the idea, but may need to polish the execution. Got tips? Critiques? Suggestions? Leave them in the comments!
A couple notes to wrap up!
- Happy Thanksgiving! If you are celebrating, I hope you enjoy some delicious food with family. If you’re not, I hope you have a great Thursday!
- I really enjoyed writing Milgram, and I’ve actually been working on more of it. I have another section completed, but it is likely to be rather long. I want to iron out a few pieces before posting more, but keep an eye out.
- And while your eyes are out, I am going to be posting some things about future directions for the blog, including some ideas I’ve had rolling around. No Card Challenge, but I do have some changes planned for the New Year that will help me build good writing habits. And some you may want to join me on. 🙂
- This idea was inspired by a story on the Darkest Night podcast. If you like creepy things, I’d recommend it. It is a fiction podcast about a laboratory that reviews the last memories from people who have died. And even with that plot line, there is something more sinister afoot. It’s well put together, especially the sound work. I’m in no way affiliated, but I have enjoyed it. It’s an original story, just taking inspiration from some ideas I had while listening. If you like podcasts and scary things, check it out!
Thanks for sticking with me. Happy Reading!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I’m studying up on social psychology for my licensing exam and got to read over the Milgram study again. Decided to use it for a story, and this is what happened. It’s a first draft, as usual, but I really enjoyed this one. Let me know what you think in the comments. As always, critiques, suggestions, positives, and negatives are all welcomed! Happy reading!
Toby sat alone in his monitoring booth, just as he had done day in and day out for the past seven and a half years. The booth was comfortable, but not spacious. He had his ergonomic chair, a desk to house his input terminals, a small refrigerator for his lunch, and the display panel. Unfortunately, there were no windows, which was why he made sure to take his lunch outside—at least when the weather permitted. It had been a long stretch of bitterly cold, breezy days, so he was resigned to staring at the three walls and display screen for the rest of the day.
The screen moved with the digital images of the shopping plaza patrons. He had been around when the system was just green, x-ray like images. Now they had at least created a few standard images that roughly assured him there were humans milling about there. They were all smiling people, dressed and styled ambiguously enough that he got nothing but a rough estimate of who they might be. There was one form for adults, one for children. Another for pets that sometimes appeared to stroll through the plaza. He liked to imagine the little groups of two adults and one or more children were a family enjoying a nice day out. In the evenings, he created stories for the two adults walking slowly through, imagining them on a first date.
Of course, that was more to simply make the time pass by more quickly. It was a good job, but painfully boring. Stare at the screen, watch for any aggressive or illegal activity, provide appropriate redirection, record the incident. Most days he redirected only minor infractions—littering, running in undesignated zones, loitering. Some days it was more significant. Once, he had to redirect a shoplifter, which was quite an experience. His hands grew clammy and his heart rate picked up just thinking about it.
There was a soft bell from the screen, and it highlighted one patron with a red aura. A pop-out replayed the last fifteen seconds of action, and Toby clearly saw the person take their napkin and drop it to the ground before continuing on. He reached out to the inputs, turning the dials down to their lowest setting—it was, after all, a minor infraction—and depressed the grey button down briefly. The image of the person on the screen briefly flickered to a red image with a frowning face, then returned to normal. The shock was delivered, the action redirected, and Toby watched the person walk over and retrieve their trash. He almost imagined the other glanced up angrily at the watching cameras, but there was of course no way to know that for sure.
Tedium is how he described his job usually. Most people abided by the rules, so there was rarely anything for him to do. The change was not necessarily welcome, because he did feel conflicted about causing pain even if it was for clearly outlined infractions; however, it also meant he had something to occupy the time. Toby dutifully recalled the recording in a portion of the screen, eyes jumping from the new activity to routine patrol, and began his report.
He attached the recorded images, watching as the generic adult figure faded and was replaced with a young man sitting at one of the plaza tables. He dropped his napkin and continued on, only to pause a minute later. Toby smiled. Sure enough, the man turned and offered an irritated glare at the camera as he picked up the discarded napkin. Toby recorded the voltage and duration of the redirection, associated it with the clip, and submitted it to Central Office for review and verification.
It was quiet as he opened his lunch box and unwrapped his sandwich. He sipped water from his bottle, letting his eyes close for a few brief moments. Dana was watching his screen while he was on break. She was always good about that. At least, he assumed she was. Her messages were always filled with exclamation points and smiley faces, so he got the feeling she was eager to help. He chewed his sandwich, thoughts wandering to Dana. He wondered what she looked like. What she brought for lunch. Where she was located.
He wondered where his plaza was located. Not in his city, that was for sure. Had he ever met someone who had walked across his screen? Neither of them would know if he had.
Had he ever met Dana?
There was a reminder tone as his thirty minute lunch ended. His screen flickered back to life, and he returned to his post. Hopefully spring would come soon and he would be able to go back outside to the park bench for lunch. He liked people watching—actual people watching—much more than being alone with his thoughts.
Time passed with minor infractions resulting in brief, routine redirection. He watched the screen and the clock with equal interest, waiting for the end of the day. It was nearly time to go home when the final redirection came in.
It was after school, so the number of children had dramatically increased. Most with parents, a few wandering alone. Teenagers, he told himself. He always kept a close eye on them, but they seemed docile today. On the other side of the screen, a region flashed as the chime sounded. He watched a child run across the plaza, leaving behind an adult figure. He looked down at the inputs, preparing the appropriate level for a child infraction, but his eyes bounced back up as there was another tone.
“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection to level: 2,” read the note hovering over the still running child. Toby sighed. This was the part he hated. Begrudgingly, he increased the dial to 2 and depressed the button. There was a flicker over the screen as the child figure turned red and stopped running. The image stayed for a three seconds, then faded back to the normal, happy child image.
The adult figure bustled over, hands waving in a lecturing motion. A parent scolding with “I told you so,” he imagined. The recording later confirmed. It was a much younger child than he imagined, too young to have already exceeded infraction level 1.
He was late leaving the office, having gotten the paperwork completed a full fifteen minutes after the end of day tone. It always took him longer on redirections like that.
Thus passed the like of Toby, day in and day out. He watched his screen, ate his lunch, and administered redirection as required. The days eventually warmed again, and he enjoyed his sandwich on a bench beneath a tree where people walked about smilingly in the sunshine. He always made sure to dispose of his trash properly, and he was a moment late back to his post.
And then, the routine changed.
It was summer, a time when the plaza was even busier and the clientele more active. He always noticed a surge in redirections in the summer, which he attributed to kids out of school and the carefree attitude that permeated the season. The rules still applied, though, and he did his job to enforce them.
He had taken a later shift, an attempt to build up some vacation time so he could spend a few days relaxing on the beach. The plaza was now much quieter, having emptied of the majority of patrons. Instead, his screen now rotated between five locales, each more deserted than the last. Toby drank his coffee slowly, yawned, and did his best to stay focused even as his lids grew heavy.
He had drifted farther towards sleep than he intended when an urgent chime from the screen snapped him back to the moment. He saw his plaza before him, feeling a familiar swell of anxiety and protectiveness. There were a handful of people on the screen, all of them frozen in time as they faced the center. There was an adult emblazoned in red. He did not need to see the replay to know what was happening. The person had broken through the boundary of the closed shops, only to return moments later carrying something. A break-in.
His hand was shaking as he moved the dial, setting it up for a shoplift redirection. These hurt him each time, because they were automatically a level five. And they seemed to get longer each and every time.
Before he could press the button, there was another chime. He looked up, his eyes stumbling over the words on the screen in disbelief.
“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection level to: 10.”
The bubble of anxiety swelling in his chest finally burst, drenching every part of him with its refuse. His hands were shaking over the dial, glancing down at the innocent numbers. There it was, sitting just beyond the nine, looking perfectly innocent in its malevolence. He had never done something like this. He had no idea what he was even about to do. But his hand shuddered as he tried to turn the knob.
The door to his office clicked open, and he released a breath he had unintentionally been holding. In walked a man in a suit, a thin smile plastered on his face. Toby stared. Not only had he never seen the man before, but no one had ever intruded on him during a shift.
“Mr. Georges,” said the man, his smile stretching just a bit, looking almost pained now.
Toby nodded. His hand was still hovering around the dial, and he could see the perpetrator moving on the screen from his peripheral vision.
“Quite a scene, eh? Go on, set the redirection and deliver it, just as instructed.”
Toby’s mouth opened and closed and his looked between the man and the screen. Eventually, his words caught up. “But, I’ve never—what if it—“
“Come on, Mr. Georges. They made their decision. We have rules here.” The man took a couple of confident strides forward, placing a hand gently on Toby’s shoulder. There was a gentle nudge, turning him back towards the screen. “Now, you do your part.” The smile widened, a gash etched across the face of a grinning corpse. The eyes were dead, Toby realized. Or not dead, but so very far away. “You have to keep order, Mr. Georges.”
The man reached across Toby, gently turning the dial from its position up to 10. He then waved at the console, indicating the smooth grey button. Toby’s hand trembled as it reached toward the button. He paused, and the hand on his shoulder tightened just enough to remind him it was there.
“Are you sure?” Toby asked, his fingers finally having found the familiar groove on the button.
“Our system doesn’t make mistakes, Mr. Georges,” said the man smoothly.
The button was down, and it took a moment for Toby to realize his fingers had pressed the button. The image on the screen changed, the person frozen in the moment. It was not a few seconds, and his eyes were glued to the screen, waiting for the normal adult image to return and assure him everything was going to be okay. It stretched on for seconds more, each one ripping itself from beats of Toby’s heart. And then it was over.
Only the image did not return to normal. It vanished completely.
The man in the suit patted Toby’s shoulder proudly. “Well done, Mr. Georges.” He turned smoothly on his heel and marched toward the door.
“Wha-What happened?” Toby blurted out, rising from his chair and taking a step toward the man.
“You provided the needed redirection,” responded the smiling man, only half turning to face him.
Toby looked back at the screen, now seeing new figures moving onto the screen. These figures were running, but had the emergency designation glowing around their images. They clustered around the spot the shoplifter had been moment before. The spot where the image disappeared.
“Are they okay?”
“They’ve been redirected,” said the man, hand on the door knob.
Toby felt the coffee surging in his gut. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“If you need a break, you have your fifteen minutes,” the man said, his hand on the door, “but we’ll expect you back at your post for your shift. You’ve got to file your report, Mr. Georges.”
“I can’t, I just—“ His head swiveled from the screen to the man, trying to piece together what was happening. The idea of watching the images in real time, of selecting his clip, of numbly filing the report. The room spun around him.
“You will, Mr. Georges.” He opened the door and had one foot out when he paused, breath catching briefly in his throat. When he turned back around, the smile was gone, replaced by a stern, concentrated expression. “And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong. Which is why I know you’ll be back to work after your fifteen minutes.”
The door closed behind him, and Toby sank into his chair, staring at the wall. He heard a chirp as his screen clicked off. Someone named Jordan was now watching his screen, not knowing what had just occurred. He stared at his hands while they trembled. What he wouldn’t give for tedium again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
I am so excited about these narrations and the communities around them. What a great creative outlet! I’m always amazed by how people take these, put their own spin on it with sounds, music, and images, and create something wonderful. Not only that, but it also gives all kinds of people more ways to get exposed to different stories and styles. Having really gotten into podcasts recently, I like the idea of being able to listen to a great creepy story, because the experience is so different compared to reading. And the people who make them put so much work and energy into them! So, I’ll continue to post and share about these as they come in. If you like to make narrations, please let me know if you ever want to narrate something. I’m almost always game!
I thought about writing a horror short story today, but I looked at the news and decided that was horror enough. And then I thought about ranting into the void about the election, but I know the void is noisy today with all kinds of opinions.
And so, instead, I think I’ll write a bit of fantasy. The fantasy genre is probably my first love, full of all that puppy dog infatuation and idealization. I don’t think I have the stomach to write a grand fantasy epic, but I do think those are some of the stories I am most intrigued by. Specifically, the idea of dragons and dragon riders has always been a favorite theme of mine. So, today, when I need to write something for me, that’s where I go.
Disclaimer: While this dos deal with “election,” there is no hidden meaning behind these. It is not some sort of metaphor or anything. It is literally a story about dragons and people and how that happens.
I carried my pack into the Hatchery Barracks, feeling a swell of anxiety and excitement. They blended so purely that it was hard to distinguish where one began and the other ended. Perhaps, I thought, they were the same thing. Anticipation of the future, one anticipating future good and the other future ill. But the same.
My thoughts spun in a flurry of ideas, each one blending into another, leading me down paths with no destination or reason. And then I was standing before my bunk, the one carrying a tag with my name scrawled on it, and set my pack down. Suddenly my thoughts were silent.
And suddenly the room was loud, full of people shuffling in and finding their position. Each full of hope and terror. We were all so much the same.
I was tired that first night; I was tired most nights in the Barracks, which I suppose meant training was proceeding as intended. Each day was full of drills, combat training, conditioning, and tactical education. I cannot separate one day from another, as they were all renditions of the same symphony. But I know I was tired.
I was especially tired that first night after carrying the burden of anxiety for so long, crawling into my bed and pulling the thin sheets over my shoulders while others chatted and whispered in the dark. Their whispers diminished over the days, as the fatigue caught up with each of us.
That night, I dreamed of home. It had been two weeks since I left there, and I would not return until next spring. The house was as I remembered it, standing proud on its stone foundation, new thatch on the roof. Smoke puffed from the chimney and I imagined I could smell my mother’s cooking even from the path outside.
Inside, my mother and father sat around the table while my brothers sat in front of the hearth, building with the blocks father had carved from them two winters ago. Words and hugs were exchanged. I remember laughter from the dream, as well as a feeling of intense contentment.
And then those feelings faded back into reality with the sound of the alarm, signaling another day of training. Even now, only the barest images and sensations from that dream exist, even though I have held them tightly all this time. They are worn like an old notice hung in the town square. I can still at least make out the details to know what it once said, even if the words have vanished.
The anxiety dwindled over the next two weeks. The alarm woke me each day, and each night I fell asleep lying next to the slumbering eggs, waiting for them to awake.
It was day nine of fourteen when I felt the connection. Exhausted as I was, my sleep was often deep and dreamless. But that night was different. That night my dream was of light half glimpsed through some semi-transparent barrier. I could watch firelight rise and fall around me, a soft dance along the walls. I felt the steady flutter of my heart, felt the soft brush of my breath over scaly skin. Sounds floated through the sounds of someone sleeping, muted footsteps on patrol. Somewhere, I heard quiet weeping. That night, I slept in the shell with the one I would later bond with.
I felt refreshed the next morning, filled with a unique energy and vitality. The day quickly sapped that, but I managed enough energy to inspect the eggs that night. I walked past each bay, glancing briefly in to see the cream, oval eggs resting in their nests. And then I walked up to number 43.
If you’ve never experienced The Connection, I’m not sure how to explain it. If you’ve ever held an instrument as it reverberates and felt that energy meld with your hand and pass through your body as well as the air, that’s like it. It’s like existing as a giant tuning fork for the entire world, so that, for a moment, everything flows right through you. You feel joy and despair and anger and fear and everything at once. You are land and sea and sky, plant, animal, and human. And then it’s over, The Connection dwindling until there is just a thin trickle of that massive river surging through you. And if you follow that trickle, it leads right back to your bonded.
The anxiety that had plagued me for weeks disappeared in that moment. Not everyone is bonded—in fact, most people leave to fulfill their duty in the infantry rather than join the Bonded Ranks. I had always hoped that I would be chosen, that I would receive the glory and esteem that came from such a role. But I never dared to believe it would happen. Until I stood in front of egg 43 and felt my breath flow in through my nose and out through theirs.
I reported The Connection right away. Sir Conaway raised an eyebrow at the number. “Ol’ 43, eh? That one’s been here a while. Waiting on you, I guess.” He pulled out a large book and scribbled the event on the last page. “All right then, miss, we’ve got it and you will be at the hatching at the end of the training.”
By the end, fourteen of the ninety-two who had begun the training remained for the hatching. We stood in formation, awaiting our next orders. The tension was palpable. We were all steps away from what would be the most significant event of our short lives so far. Sir Conaway stood before us, chewing on the end of his pipe as he read over the event log again and again. After what seemed like ages, he pulled the pipe from his mouth and spoke.
“Larena Dougan and Tallesor de’Trie, please come with me.”
Chills chased through my body as I heard my name, but faded as we walked past the bays and toward Sir Conaway’s meeting room. This was not protocol, growled the knot of anxiety roiling in my gut. I walked into the room, shaking as Sir Conaway closed the door behind me. He walked to the other side of the table, dropping the log book in between the three of us.
“Alright you two, somebody’s not telling me the truth.” He ran a large hand over his forehead, massaging at his temples. “I had hoped the fraud would chicken out before tonight, but one of you is foolish enough to push on ahead.”
Tallesor jumped to alarm. “What do you mean, sir? I’m here for the hatching.” He was sweating heavily, perhaps because of the fire roaring in the grate beside him. But his eyes seemed too wide, too jumpy. I had trained alongside him for two weeks, long enough to know that things rarely broke through his veneer of arrogant surety. I was not sure what to do with this uncertain, nervous comrade.
“Of course you’re hear for the hatching,” exclaimed Sir Conaway with exasperation. “We wouldn’t have a problem if both of you weren’t here for the hatching!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice tiny in the large room, “but I don’t know what’s going on?”
Sir Conaway sighed and stroked his beard once, weighing his words. “You’ve both claimed egg 43. Which means one of you is lying and trying to sneak into the Bonded Ranks. And there are serious punishments for such deception.”
His eyes moved evenly over the two of us, measuring and looking for any weakness. We both dripped with anxiety and fear, and I suddenly felt myself doubting everything I had experienced up until that point.
“Could we—has there ever been two bonded to one egg before?” I squeaked out.
“Never,” came the solid reply. He continued studying us both. The only sound was the snapping of the logs in the grate. Finally, he spoke wearily. “You both know what happens if you try to bond to a dragon you’ve not connected with, right?”
My head shook, and fro the corner of my eye I saw Tallesor do the same.
Sir Conaway sniffed. “Of course not. You wouldn’t try something this stupid if you did. The dragon will hatch bonded t its true connection. It’ll reject the impostor. Aggressively.”
The anxiety that had been my constant companion now swelled into a monster of its own, turning the room into a chokingly small dungeon. Tallesor appeared to feel the same surge of anxiety, but I watched as it slowly faded from his features. He was watching me, a half smile now on his lips.
“So, before I turn one of you over to the beast, can you both confirm your Connection to 43?”
Tallesor was ready with his answer. “Of course. I would never be deceitful with such vita information. I just can’t believe she,” he looked over to me with a sneer, “would stoop so low to claw her way into prestige.”
Maybe I was wrong, I thought. Perhaps all of these experiences were just me wishing it could be different, creating something that was not there. But I could reach out, follow that thin trickle of the world still running through me, and feel someone at the other end. 43.
“I can confirm.” The words were out of my mouth before I had even processed what was happening. I was sure Tallesor turned a few shades paler after I spoke, but perhaps it was simply the lighting.
Sir Conaway lifted the book from the table, stepping around to the door and dragging it open. “Then let’s get this over with.”
Upon returning to the others, doing my best to dodge their accusing, questioning stares, the bay doors were opened. Slowly, with reverent grace and patience, each of us stepped forward toward our identified bay and the waiting egg. The rest of the room disappeared around me, replaced by the simple wooden walls and straw floor of the egg bay. Egg 43 sat in front of me, the same shade of pearly white that I had watched for so long.
“Leave and I’ll pay you heartily, make sure the punishment is waived,” hissed Tallesor once we were in semi-privacy.
“What?” I asked, too loudly. He quickly raised a finger to his lips, shushing me.
“I need this more than you. I’ll be the first in seven generations not to be in the Bonded Ranks. If you leave, I’ll ensure you are well cared for.”
“I’m not going,” I said, surprising myself with my unusual confidence. Now I knew who the impostor was, the anxiety turned into pure excitement. “And I hope you’re not stupid enough or stubborn enough to go forward after the warnings.”
He smiled a dark, angry grin. “I’m sure the dragon will recognize greatness when it sees it. Lt’s just hope you manage to survive this.”
Sir Conaway’s voice echoed behind us. “Place your hand on the shell of the egg. I will come through and pour the Hatching Serum onto each egg in turn.”
I placed my hand on the egg as Tallesor did the same. It was softer than I thought, feeling less like an egg shell and more like skin. It seemed to give slightly as I put pressure on it, almost as if returning the touch. A slow, steady heartbeat pulsed through my hand and into my body, providing an echo to the one that had flowed through me since The Connection. I would not be abandoned, it assured.
There were sounds of cracking shells all around us. Of course, the view was entirely blocked, but I heard shots of joy, followed by soft rumbles and yips. Through it all, Sir Conaway’s voice giving polite, practiced congratulations.
He stood in the doorway to our bay for the span of a few breaths, studying us both. There was resignation in his voice when he finally spoke. “So you’re both going through with this?”
“Yes,” was Tallesor’s confident reply. I nodded my head weakly, and I could tell by the pity in his eyes Sir Conaway thought I was the liar.
He lifted a bowl over our hands, spilling out a thick, warm, honey colored liquid. The substance oozed over our hands, then trickled down along the shell. After a moment, there was the sound of cracking as the egg moved for the first time. It rocked strongly, and I feared I would be thrown against the back wall. But the liquid held my hand to the surface with surprising strength, almost as if my hand and the shell had somehow merge in that moment.
Then there was a louder crack. Like a lightning bolt, one large, green eye found me. It was like a jewel, colors folding on top of colors to form a deep, ageless pit of emerald. The trickle of connection I had felt surged into a river again, but this time it was not the whole world. This time it was just myself and—
“Khandar,” answered the dragon’s voice in my mind. It flowed through me, the name sounding like thunder and tasting of smoke. There was a moment that the world was doubled and I saw from four eyes, felt two hearts. I felt my muscles strain against the shell before finally bursting free.
And then he was standing before me, our eyes locked the world having resolved to one perspective again as the river steadied its flow. The Connection was there, but it was restrained. Manageable.
I looked at Khandar, studying the long line of his neck, the strong limbs of his body, the thick wings folded. In an instant, he stretched those wings, the tips reaching from one corner of the room to the other. He was the same early white as the egg shell—I knew that, somewhere in the recesses of knowledge. All dragons are born without color. His would develop as we trained together over the next few months, reflecting our role within the Ranks.
I was dimly aware of Sir Conaway still standing, slightly shocked, in the doorway. I was also aware of Tallesorlyaing in a heap on the far wall, his hand still stuck to a fragment of the shell. Rage flowed through me, not from myself, but from Khandar. I watched as he turned, steam billowing from his nostrils. I could feel the power flowing through both of us as he reached out one clawed leg and struck at the stunned impostor.
Sir Conaway looked concerned, but stood immobile. “Such is the way,” he whispered to himself as he watched.
There was blood on the ground, blood in the straw, anger in the air. And I could see Tallesor’s shocked face, now sporting a bright red gash across his cheek.
There was fire building in my belly, and I could hear strong words, ancient words passing through my mind. I was at once witness and actor. “Thus to usurpers,” whispered Khandar’s voice. This was the way it had been determined, I ould feel it in my bones. Those who attempted to deceive or disrupt the ancient ritual were dealt with harshly. Still, I felt sorrow and guilt rise up.
“No.” The word brought the world crashing back down around me. Khandar eyed me, his mind probing my own and uncovering every detail he sought. We were not of two minds any longer, but one shared.
“No,” his voice repeated in my mind. The fire dulled as he took the few steps to my side. Tallesor sat with blood dripping down his chin, eyes wide.
Sir Conaway watched the scene curiously, finally waving over his shoulder to alert the waiting guards. They shuffled in and grabbed Tallesor under the arms, dragging him from the room.
“He got off far better than most others who have tried that,” he said with a hint of disappointment and respect.
“What will happen now?”
“The doctor will patch him up, he will be disbarred from all military and public service, and as such he will be fined a portion of his income each year to atone for his negligence.” He looked at both of us. “You let him off too easy, I’d say.”
I felt a nudge of agreement from Khandar, but it was good-natured. We had a difference in temperament, I could see, but certainly that could be a strength. Right.
Khandar leaned against me, so I could feel the puffing of his chest with each breath, the thunder of his heart as it pounded in time to my own. Connected. Bonded. The next few months and years would be full of training, of honing our bond and our work. But we had conquered time and space to unite together.
Excitement bubbling in our mind, we stepped out of the bay and into the Bonded Ranks.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.