Age: 15, Grade: 9
School Name: Horace Mann School, Bronx, NY
Educator: Yael Schick
Category: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Dear Mr. Tempus,
I remember what I saw earlier today on TV. The face of the lady with a face, eerily pale, over-rouged cheeks under pinched eyes and an eccentric bleached wig that talked behind the television set. Everyday at exactly 5:30:00 CPT (common people time), the families of Happytown switch on their television sets to The Joy Of Living, the government, orh the Council based morning show run by my father, and tune in to the shrill voice of some lady babble on. It’s only background noise to me, but the nectar that the people fed off of. The recognition and approval from the TV screen, the only form of repayment that they expect in return for 14 hour shifts at their Assigned Obligations. I grind the peas a little harder with my spoon, green skin rupturing against the side of my bowl. Her voice trills into the microphone as her spider like fingers flutter.
“Our beloved honeybees, it is another lovely day in Happytown! You all have been busy spreading the cheer and aiding our country to become brighter, and we certainly have not forgotten about your efforts. And so many of you will be rewarded with ‘honeybee’ badges as your service come to an end as the year draws to a close. In the meantime, as Cycle #107 looms near, let’s finish off 3037 on a good note! That will be all. Joy will be spread.”
These words were ingrained into the minds of all of the people of Happytown residents. In the same way, their ever present smiles and contentment are a repeated mantra, part of every morning, every day, every gathering, during the Working Hours, and between transitions as everyone hurries back and forth from Assigned Obligations. My obligation of the moment was school, a privilege reserved for the kids of the people in the Council, where we learned foreign things not taught in the regular schools for the other kids in Happytown, like the sciences, history, and the great authors of our past. Instead, they went to school to learn the little reading and writing and maths that they needed in order to complete their Assigned Obligation, one layed out for them on their birth certificate, randomized on a computer system before they were even born. When one baker dies, another takes his place, and another is born, and for some reason, it was the way it was. It was another one of my unanswered questions, a list I dared only keep in my mind, words that could never be spoken, written down on paper, or disturb a molecule of a perfect system designed to suffocate. I wondered what it was like to be like Alexander Hamilton and Cleopatra and Mulan, only figures of the past in storybooks, born into a place not to fill a predetermined role, a seat that was never your choice to fill, but to pursue your own.
Dear Mr. Tempus,
I heard something that I don’t think was meant for my ears yesterday night. I was restless, tossing and turning, preparing myself to suffer through another one of my sleepless nights. The door to my father’s office was cracked slightly ajar, a pale yellow light that tossed thin slivers onto he hardwood. I heard him talking to somebody, perhaps on the phone. From down the hallway, my ears perk up,
“It all needs to be ready by next week. All the other emotions are readministered, aside from Complacency and Obedience.”
I pressed my ears to the door, shrinking out of the light so my shadow wouldn’t give me away. The voice on the other end of the phone answered in a muffled staticky tone. My father spoke again: “The Cycle is nearly over and we have to start speeding up the process of readministration. We have thousands of people left to go, but not nearly enough time. We surely can’t risk some folks starting to formulate their own bothersome ideas or start feeling distempered about their Obligations”.
I felt a cold shiver, wandering fingers pressing on each vertebrae in my spine. What does he mean ‘readministering emotions’? Do people not regularly think for themselves, complain about their jobs, get aggravated at small things, as nothing more than a part of our nature? Yes, perhaps we live in a country where we live brainwashed by the idea that its only acceptable to follow and be content, but do people not still feel those feelings, though not condoned by society, on their own?
The metallic twang of the clock marks 2:00:00 cpt, three and a half hours before the eyes of the people of Happytown fixate once more, entranced by the well rehearsed performance behind the television set.
Dear Mr. Tempus,
The words I’ve heard lingers on my mind still. And subconsciously, I think I’ve begun to notice the little things more so than before. On the way home from school, I watch the casual banter between passing ladies.
“Hello Unit Anne. How was your day?”
“Hello Unit Helen. My day was fine, thank you. How was yours?”
“Very well thank you.”
And then they brushed shoulders, just barely, smiles afixed on their faces even after they turn away from each other.
I felt a rush of wind past behind me, whipping my hair about across my face and I turned only to watch in horror as a bike traversed straight towards a small boy standing next to his mother. My mouth parted slightly, a gasp tumbling out of my throat before I could stop it. The boy crumpled onto the pavement as the bike handles knocked into his chest and the rotating tires ran over the tops of his small feet. The boy blinked for a few seconds, and something within me expected to see the beginnings of a quivering lip, huffy breaths and welling eyes. But instead, he stood up on shaky legs, a slight cherubic smile glazing his lips beneath unfocused eyes. His mother stood in place staring out blankly, her face calm and at peace, a carbon copy of the faces of all the passersby, like a video on pause, as if nothing had ever happened. I wonder how I’ve never noticed this before. The same fixed greetings, no more no less as to not waste time in the busy schedule of Obligations. The ones with eyes rimmed with dark circles and hands with angry blisters and calluses who never make a sound, corners of lips upturned and unbudging. Teenagers who all seem to be perfectly content with dedicating their waking moments and their young lives just to work in a predetermined role for the rest of their lives. And small children, who are born uncrying into the doctor’s arms. One of the few things that was never quite right about Happytown.
I walked past the entrance towards the government complex where my father worked. My microchip scanned automatically as I passed through spinning glass doors, and no one spared a second glance. I hurried, head down, counting the lines on the floor between each slab of stone until I reached the elevator. My father and the rest of his team were on lunch break and I had a limited time until they would come back. The door to his office lay slightly ajar, and I began to regret my impulsivity as I glanced at the rows upon rows of filing cabinets. My hands shook as I brushed it over knobs on the desk only to come up with spare staples and crumpled index cards of phone numbers. His computer sat atop his desk, a thin sheet that hummed with energy. His password was the same as it always had been. My name and my first year of school. The clock read 1:17:36, and my teeth chattered in time with my hands that flew over the keyboard. I came across a file that read “Cycle Reports”. I clicked on the first recording. Cycle 1#. The soft click of the recording button and the whirr of a some old electric mechanism in the background or white noise broke the silence. The lady cleared her throat clearly slightly nervous.
“Cycle 1# pt 1. Year 3014. The installment of microchips in all citizens have been a success. People are updated with their health and vital levels, along with exercise and happiness updates. We were also able to obtain all necessary information to begin the first stimulation shortly.”
I click to the next file.
“Cycle 1# pt 2. The first wave of Anti-Frustration and Anti-Jealousy has been administered into the microchips. Reports have been sent back to see a general decrease in those emotions in demographics.
I frantically scrolled up, clicking from one cycle after another.
“…administration of anti-boredom and anti-cynicism”
And I return back to our cycle. Cycle #107. I hear my father’s voice. The one he uses in front of the Council and the country.
“Cycle #107. Report 1#. This year’s administration has been a success for the most part. Readministration of anti-disobedience have been a bit late, and there was a small risk of signs of that emotion appearing in our workforce. Emotions have been generally uniform.”
And just like that, I exposed myself to a hidden truth and the responsibility that I was given that came with knowing. I can still choose to believe that it is all a misunderstanding, my own curiosity connecting dots that were never there in the first place. Unlike the heroines of banned storybooks, who aren’t afraid to dive into the unknown, throwing behind their villages or lives as princesses to seek for answers and so called justice and bring light to the truth, I couldn’t. I was too afraid. Not of the consequences or failure, or even disappointment that the things I heard were of me going crazy, paranoid, only a side effect of life where the deep recesses of my own mind was my only companion. Instead, I was afraid that my words will mean and do nothing. That their eyes will still remain closed, smiles still decorating pallid cheeks and my voice will be for them, nothing more than a passing breeze.
Dear Mr. Tempus,
This morning, I figured it out. I was woken up from another night of restless sleep by the muffled sound of a voice. The Joy of Living was playing on the TV in another room. The one thing that every single person in Happytown gathers every morning to watch. Anything said and presented on that screen is one that will be seen by all the people.
I didn’t turn up to school that day. Instead, I turned left on the fork on my street corner instead of right and walked towards the direction of the broadcasting center. There was hardly anyone there after morning broadcasts as I made my way towards the studio. The flip of a switch turned all the lights on, surrounding the main camera already set up for tomorrow’s broadcast. My nerves were heightened as I reached for the button that starts the stream. After this moment, the entire nation will stop at a standstill. They’ll see my face, one of a young girl, hear the words and the truth that had been hidden from then in a corrupt system of lies and masked smiles. They will be unprepared for the things they hear. Perhaps they’ll begin to feel the emotions that have been robbed from them?
A soft beep broke the silence. The camera is rolling.
“Hi I’m Penelope Sprout and there is something that all of you must know. I don’t have much time before I’ll be stopped from telling you the truth. The world as you know it right now is one made up of lies by the Council. Your microchips aren’t used solely for demographic and health purposes. The Council uses it as a means to distribute anti-emotions into your body. They cancel your true emotions in tandem to events in your lives that are also under their control. You are always content, happy, never complaining about your job you never chose. Without emotions you are a worker bee, a body without a soul. But what is it you are feeling now? The suppressed emotions, flooding like a broken dam caused by a chip in the wall? Without the very thing you are feeling now, there is no humanity. The Council ensures that you will never be able to think for yourselves, complain, question, cause a revolution, anything to make sure they stay on top and that your only purpose and capability is to labor beneath their feet. I only speak the truth, and if there is one emotion that I need you to feel above all right now, as long as you still have time, please…. just belie-”.
*** The whirring machine is the sound of broken glass falling, clattering against each other, falling, falling. The room is quiet but for the muffling of emergency reports coming from every corner of the country. My vision fades in and out of focus, and my eyelids are sluggish and heavy. Father. He is half dressed in his work uniform. His nightshirt with his favorite band, The Beatles, a leftover fragment of a different era he often told me he wished he was born in. The kind of music that he puts on instead of the Council radio on Sundays. His work suit is worn over it, slightly rumpled.
“Penelope. You didn’t have to do this.” He cuts me short, and inhales. He looks at the ground, his arms shaking slightly.
“You can’t have expected me to not have figured out at some point. Those people are soulless, Papa. You pretend that you are such a good person when you are just as bad as all the rest of them. Consider this your own fault that you didn’t make me like the other ones too, and I might have spared you this trouble.” I can’t keep my voice from rising, wavering, a bird’s trembling wings as it tries in vain to take flight for the first time.
“If you kept silent, nothing would have happened. I’ve given you everything you needed, wanted. You threw away it all, you stupid, stupid…!”
His voice is raspy, desperate, filled with the kind of emotion that he so carelessly stole.
“Silence. That’s all you taught me. Did you think that my life was any happier or better than theirs? Did I want to be hidden away and fed lies, and trained to grow up and be like someone that I don’t want to be? Someone like you? I was no better or happier than all the others Papa. I was a chess piece the whole time wasn’t I? I didn’t have to be controlled by those anti-emotions when my entire life was controlled by you.”
I was always the backdrop to his play, and yet he expected me to never notice each act and scene. And suddenly I’m scared, and the weight of the future dawns on me.
“Something really bad is going to happen to me right? I’m scare-. You’re not going to do anything, right?”
My father tried to reply, his lips opening and wavering but no words came out. There was something he wanted to say, but his mouth made no sound, shuddering like a puppet’s limp body on strings as he stared at me. Like the people of Happytown, and like I, we aren’t free.
He steps towards me, a silver tube hitting the fluorescent lights on the ceiling, and reflecting into my eyes. My heart rate doesn’t speed up. I don’t know what awaits me, but I know that to them, I am only a means to an end. My father’s hands linger before mine, brushing over my hands before he removes them, and as I rub my fingers between each other, they are damp.
Something enshrouds me and everything becomes dark. When its lifted, I’m not in the same room anymore and my father is gone and I’m left to wait. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and what they would do, but I do know that in the way that they choose, I will truly be silenced. Goodbye for now, Mr. Tempus.
Recording of Cycle #107. Report #2:
“Minor hiccup in the system occurred when unadministered individual Penelope Sprout, now Citizen #12304 broke into a broadcasting center and spoke badly of the Council to the public. The necessary basic anti-emotions are administered into her and the citizen is showing no signs of struggle and all is going smoothly. Small outbreaks of commotion and unrest has been reported nationwide but the Joy of Living has been on track to deliver messages to control the small damages made.”
epilogue – the next
Citizen #10037 sat at the breakfast table, eyes fixated on the TV screen as the Joy of Living played, the same way he had for the last 16 years of his life. His mind drifted to the girl, who appeared suddenly on the TV screen on one of the street corners the day before in the early morning. It was a lie, said the Council members on the screen. They said she was like a fluke in the system, to not put notice on her and go back to their everyday lives. But his mind refused to leave the words of the girl uttered alone, and a part of him tugged at something he couldn’t quite understand or get a hold of.
His family sat, along with the rest of Happytown, transfixed at the TV screen, and the girls face, her voice lingered on his mind. She seemed so different, much more…alive than everyone else.
He heard her words again.
“What is it that you are feeling now?”.