Community Stories. Get Inspired, Get Underlined


By @Val

The Waiting Days

98 days to banishment

My eyes turn up towards the sun. It is cut by a stretch of buildings to the west, casting harsh shadows that crawl closer to the edge of Eden as each minute ticks away. I carry no watch, yet these eleven months in service to the plowmen have given me a certain intuition when it comes to positions of the sun. The day is closing quickly and soon our work will be over, but for now Louisa and I are content to pace our field in calm silence, surrounded by a city hollowed of life.

This eastern block of Gratis used to be a park. I can tell by the lone bench they forgot to remove, now rusted on its feet and overrun by vines from this season’s pumpkin patch. I squat, fingering the leaves, and pretend to remove beetles. There are several bulbous little bodies present that I could easily squash between my fingers, but I pay them no mind. Instead I imagine sitting here, in a time passed, when people still came to parks. They once brought their children here, children who knew no better, and together they spent days at a time soaking in the sun’s rays. These people of the past are strange to me, having sought rather than feared discoloration. It is hard to comprehend, but there was a time when the sun’s touch was envied. The healthy glow of tanned flesh was craved. Many died, even, in their efforts to attain it. And still they came here to Eden, giving themselves over to the sun craze.

I was born long after that world ended, but I find myself pretending the stories of the past are told about me. They are hushed stories, ones we speak only in whispers after the sun goes down. When it is only us, the deviants, alone in our rooms, we pass tales that feel like nothing more than ancient legends – real at one point and time, but surreal to our present.

One of the stories is mine. It is the story of Eden and those who once came here, and the circumstances that were so different then than they are now. I speak of the bench, of its inscription that I can no longer read. Of how I long to sit and admire Gratis as people did in the old days. I often wonder aloud to my listeners if this bench was left here on purpose. It was decades ago. Not quite the beginning of Felle, when people were too afraid to place even a gloved finger outside our community gate, but during spring of the hollow year when our founders exhausted all resources within the community. Only then did they become desperate enough to send people scavenging for supplies. These were the first of what we now know as grubbers. They were first to enter Gratis in search of any hope to survive even a night. This park, fertile with sprouts of green grass, offered them instead a hope to cultivate, and has brought Felle life till even now, nearly half a century more.

Was this bench left here, a memorial to the past, so that Felle’s descendants would not forget? So that I could never forget?

I cannot answer this question, and I do not dare voice it to Louisa. We enjoy many hours together, just the two of us in the silence of Eden, yet we have never grown familiar. Though deviant, she is not like myself.

Her hair, thin and blond, is cut bluntly at her shoulders. Behind this sheer curtain, I can see plainly enough the source of her deviance: a red marking that begins at the ear, ventures down her long neck, and disappears beneath her navy colored collar. It is elevated, though only slightly, and appears inflamed. I observed this marking nearly a year ago, when we were first paired, and have considered little of it since.

Aside from this stretch of scarring, Louisa once appeared completely common. The closer I come to her, the more I can see how this year of labor has disrupted that appearance, corrupting her once porcelain skin with clusters of freckles and, on hot days, patches of blistering heat rash. She has been to the clinic more times than nearly anybody else, each time quivering at what her new spots could mean. These visits with Felle’s specialist have all proven her fear unnecessary, and Louisa always returns to her work without so much as a biopsy.

Though I do not know what incident led to the red scarring of her neck, Louisa was not born into this. She probably expected placement in a reception job, or maybe even as far as clinical. I never asked. Certainly, she did not anticipate the life she now lives. For this reason only, I take pity on the quiet creature that works beside me.

Louisa believes I deserve to suffer beneath the hot sun of Gratis. I know this is her opinion of me. Each day she eyes my flesh, raking its conflicting colors, and judges me unclean. She thinks Gratis called my name the second I was pulled from my mother’s womb, calico and screaming, but Louisa does not know the half of it. She is clueless about my sudden descent into deviance, and still I cannot hate her for judging me. It is how common children are raised to think. How even I was raised. Were it not for my sister, I would be just as clueless as dear Louisa.

Like Ruth before me, I was common born. Pristine. Unblemished. Clean in every sense of the word. My sister and I share a similar fate as well. One that put us in the hands of Felle’s court, no longer wanted by our birthmother. It was Ruth that opened my eyes to the reality of Felle, and Ruth that took care of me from the age of five, when my skin first began to grow spotty, until age fifteen.

Fifteen. That is the age of emancipation for wards of Felle’s court. So young. Too young, even, when deciding the path of one’s life. I committed to the plowmen despite my desire to join Ruth as a grubber. Every detail of her daily race was meant to deter my entry. That is how my sister designed it, and so she succeeded in her ways of keeping me from following her path. She described it as grueling, each day spent racing the sun and praying to make it back before Felle’s gate closes. This turned me off at the time, though I have since found a lust within me for the dangerous race.

She knew better than I did why I was not meant to be a grubber. Had I sold my soul away to their force, spending my days free to roam Gratis in search of needed supplies, I would have never made it back through Felle’s gate. The temptation of freedom is far too inviting, and I far too weak.

This brief journey from Felle’s gate to Eden is becoming too little. I want more of Gratis. I want to see how far its streets extend, trail the bike path to its delta, and adventure the west side of the river – gypsy territory. It is worse than a lust. A lust can be answered for, but not this. Felle has standards set in the hardest of stone about those who stay outside past nightfall.

Even now, Gratis tempts me. It surrounds me, silence more seductive than if it were beckoning with a siren’s song. I fear what would have become of me if I had committed to grubbing. For as long as the sun remains in the sky, they are free. We field workers are restricted to the stretch of light between sunrise and late afternoon, as are the other laborers: Felle’s dockmen and ranchers. Within our sectors and within our timeframe, we work. Once the sun reaches peak and begins its fall, we know our work is nearing its end. Soon after, a sentry is sent to each sector for retrieval. These men come in shells of blue, every inch of flesh protected from the damaging sunlight. Beneath they remain unblemished. Clean.

The grubbers are not confined by such limits. They are left to decide for themselves when to turn back. Sometimes they are not right, overestimating their speed or underestimating the sun’s position, and for this reason do we lose so many grubbers to the night.

Gratis seems to grow and swell, alive like an organism that feeds on grubbers not lucky enough to win the race. Or not willing. I suspect that, like myself, some become too consumed with their freedom to return. It happens more often than one would think. Most die in the night, but those bodies that we do not find we can only assume have joined the gypsies. No one in Felle knows for certain what happens to them once within the gypsy community, only that they never come back.

I think about not coming back. It would be easy. I am much faster than Louisa if she thought to stop me, though from what I can tell she is not the fighting type. She has never spoken to me beyond necessity, and I doubt she would risk leaving Eden. I wonder what the sentries would do when they showed up in their dark suits and protective caps, searching after my long settled trail of dust. They would not look long or far for me, fearing the limits of time, but they would become angry. I fear Louisa would receive the punishment due for my vanishing act. This thought keeps me planted now as it has for the past eleven months. Though not familiar, I could never be so cruel to what is already such a pitiful girl.

We will be called in shortly. Louisa does another lap within our zone, searching for pestilence. She examines the three sisters, who are nearing their prime. The corn stocks stand tall, chorded with beans that have pushed through a tangle of squash vines. They are binded closely, inseparable as the autumn winds shake leaves from distant oak trees. We will have to harvest soon. Once the season begins, all deviants will be sent here and this present quiet will be replaced by the bustle of collection. But in this moment, I cannot spare a thought for preparation. I remain near my bench and wait just a moment longer, enjoying the calmness while I can. This is a peace I cannot find within the walls of Felle – not even in the greenhouse where I often go for comfort in the long dismal days.

A quiet growl disrupts my calm. I was not expecting to see him today, and so the dog’s rumble gives me a quick fright before understanding hits. His growl subsides, replaced by a rhythmic panting. I know not to pet him, but his dog grin invites me closer. I take a few steps, not breaking the crop line to where he sits beyond on the paved asphalt. His fur, a dusty brown, is shaggy and filth covered. Below this thick exterior I expect there must be protruding bones and a starving stomach. There is hardly enough for Felle to survive out here, let alone a dog. I have nothing to offer him, and so I simply watch as he begins pacing the field.

The call comes sooner than expected. I am caught off guard, not busied, and Louisa scolds me for it. As though we had not spent half our morning seated in the grassy patch where we always lounge on waiting days. The other workers listen from their zones, nodding as Louisa tsks. She does this so that she is not struck. I do not blame her. Sentry Howard’s hand across my cheek stings the entire walk back to Felle. Next time I will not linger in my peace, though I note with some satisfaction that Howard’s slap is the first human contact I have felt all day. Though painful, I consider it a success to have forced a common person to go against Felle’s standard on touch.

Louisa and I fall into line behind Howard and the others as he leads us up the eastern road. We take the first left, passing the hardware store and other little shops on the strip. At the watertower we get our first glimpse of Felle since this morning. Beyond the faded tarmac of what used to be Main Street, there is a thin stretch of grass. I can see the pavement lining Felle is crowded with dockmen and ranchers, already returned from their work and awaiting reentry.

Howard leads us around the manmade pond, sticking to paved road rather than cutting across the grass. It would be faster to cut, yet we follow our sentry in the same manner as always. A deviant never dares defy their superior, not even in this small way. Such disrespect is Betrayal of Practice and may result in minor punishment, usually a meal revocation or day in quiet, though repeat offenders receive worse.

“How’sit?” Tina asks as we approach.

The young dockman smiles at me, her harlip revealing a row of pristine white teeth. I return the expression, though Louisa only nods and blushes. She has a hard time looking at Tina without staring, and so she waits for reentry from a safe distance away, eyes downcast and feet dragging across small pebbles.

“Good,” I say, flashing my soil covered hands. Today was just a waiting day, yet I ran my hands through the loose earth regardless. It is good to appear dirty after a day in Eden. The sentries strike us for sloth if they think we have not been doing our part. Howard’s slap, of course, undermined the efforts to dirty myself. Tina says nothing about the red handmark undoubtedly still burning my cheek, and I return the question. “You?”

Tina describes the day’s catch. Nothing staggering, but ample.

We are joined by Randall, a rancher of questionable merit. His grin is a grisly sight, marred by flecks of crimson blood. He details the butchering of a maimed sow, whose carcass has been stripped and delivered to the cooks. With the catch and the sow, plus our surplus remaining from last years harvest, tonight’s meal ought to be enjoyable for even the lowliest of community members.

One by one, workers file into the courtroom where nurse Walt waits, notepad in hand. I stagger in the doorway, positioning myself last for examination. This way he may take his time with me, and perhaps I will be allowed to enjoy the contact. Not obviously, but just enough for the two of us to feel this momentary connection.

“Johanna,” Walt says, detached. He speaks as though we hardly know one another. I respond in the same way, using coldness to avoid suspicion. I extend my wrist, offering my pulse for taking. He pens the numbers quickly before bringing his attention back to me. I remove my sun cap and outer layer, allowing him to search for new deviance. His fingers graze my shoulder, turning me in place. “New mole,” he comments, but says nothing further.

“I’ll see Rosemary about it.”

This is the end of our conversation. We do not discuss our day or how we feel or anything that common people speak of. He does not even look at me a moment longer than necessary. Nothing that may hint at our familiarity. Not while the courtroom is so full of watchful eyes.

Slowly, I gather my garments and my thoughts. The others leave the courtroom one by one or in small groups, hurrying off to whatever it is they eagerly anticipate within Felle’s walls. Tina waves goodbye, her and Randall departing together in search of dinner. I get no farewell from Louisa, who I will not see again until tomorrow’s march to Eden. That is fine by me. In the end it is only me and Walt who remain, the lone sentry stationed just beyond the gate.

“I have news.” Walt says this in a low voice, bringing me deeper within the courtroom. This surprises me, as conversation has always been the last thing on our minds during this waiting time. We have found other things to occupy our bodies between plowmen call and grubber return. Forbidden things. Things we never should have allowed to transpire, yet things we enjoy each night all the same.

I wait for him to explain, wishing secretly that he would just touch me already. I am starved for contact, and discussion only exaggerates my desire. Hardly listening, I reach for his arms. My fingers toy with the sleeves of his purple scrubs, feeling beneath them warm flesh. To my surprise, Walt shrugs away from this. His tone commanding, he says, “This is important. It’s -” He hesitates and I can feel him pulling away both physically and on another level. His mind is retreating into memory, mulling over what he has to tell me. I am forced to straighten, a sense of concern flooding my body, and banished is my selfish lust for contact. “It’s Ellie.”

My breath escapes me. I ought to have known this was coming, but it blindsides me anyway. An image of the common girl floods my memory and I am deflated by Walt’s news even before it has left his lips.

“Dead?” I ask, answered by his expression.

“The child too,” he adds.

I wish to feel sorry for Ellie, but I know it is wrong. She was not a friend, or even an acquaintance. Only a fascination shared by all of Felle. A common woman who crossed every set standard. What right do I have to mourn her death when I hardly knew her in life? My pity then falls to Oliver, the father of her dead child. I look to the open gate, beyond Philip and into the light of Gratis. He is out there now, unaware of the news awaiting him.

“You should go,” Walt says, his fingers guiding me towards the corridor. This is the first time today that he has touched me intentionally. “It’s better if you’re not here when I tell him.”

I allow him only a few steps before resisting. He looks to me, confused, as I fumble to explain why he cannot be the one to tell Oliver. I feel it strongly, though the explanation is too cruel to give. I want to be the one to tell him. Somehow I feel that if the words come from a gentle voice, gentler than even Walt’s, they will not hurt so much. Words are words. I know this. Yet in this moment I convince myself that some delicate articulation will ease poor Oliver’s suffering.

Walt consents to my request only when he realizes there will be no swaying me. He frowns, pleading to me with just a look as he leaves to inform Commander Edith of my involvement. She will not like it, I know, but it will be allowed.

Someday, I think, Oliver may thank me for this intervention. He will look back on this dark time and find a twinge of warmth. Someday, I know, will never be if the words come to him on Walt’s unintentionally cold lips.

As the time draws nearer to share this news, and each possible outcome runs through my mind, I begin to wonder if my lips will be any warmer. Though the waiting day has ended in Eden, I now await something different. Something sinister. Something I thought was right, but now wonder if it is only a mistake.

I am beginning to fidget, though I cannot spare the thought to stop myself. My fingers writhe beyond my attention, which has transfixed upon the setting sun. It is frightening to behold. I have never seen it before. Not like this. Not so deep into its descent. Orange rays strike my eyes, lurching further into the courtroom as the great star trails downward. It resembles sunrise, of which I am profoundly familiar, though this late evening sky lacks the promise of a long day to follow. Instead brews an approaching darkness, of which I am stranger to.

The grubbers leave at dawn. Every dawn. It is then that I set off with them, parting ways at Eden, and at dusk that I bring myself back to the courtroom to await their return. So it has been every day for nearly a year now. Tonight, I know, will not be like those other nights. Though the orange sun hangs heavily in the sky, hovering over a horizon of low rising buildings, my anticipation of the grubbers return grows shrouded with fear.

My faith in their competency is unwavering. I know each grubber well – more than well. For some, our companionship grows to even intimacy. Ruth, my sister. Kat, my closest friend. Oliver, the man who I will soon be informing of his world collapsing around him. Tonight it is the news on my tongue that frightens me, and forgotten is the prospect of losing a runner to sunfall. It would be cruel of me to wish the grubbers a late return, yet I desire more time. An unholy mixture of gratitude and dread fills me as I scan the shadowed buildings for emerging bodies and find none. It has never taken so long as it does now. The shadows beyond have never stretched so far.

The world of Gratis is not a kind one. It is one we hardly know. We choose not to know. What truths we deny can hardly hurt us from beyond the fortris we call Felle. Though few dare venture out by day when it is safest, the night is a different beast. The dark is ruled by gypsies, and in the night their world comes alive with traps and gore for the deviants unlucky enough to find themselves locked out. Gypsies are a dangerous breed. They would come into Felle itself, anxious to murder us in our beds, if the opportunity ever arose. For this reason, a sentry must never leave the gate open past sundown. Not even to spare a grubber’s life.

Despite this, despite the loom of darkness and my mounting fear, I can feel a part of me wanting to escape. To burst past the sentry at gate and run off into the soon dark night. The deviant in me wants to roam the barren streets of Gratis and discover what truth there is to the common people’s stories. This is, of course, a betrayal of thought.

Felle has many standards forbidding many things. One standard, the third set standard, forbids thoughts that go against Felle’s beliefs. It is wrong to think of Gratis as anything other than death, or for a deviant to regard a common man as lesser than them. Even if I were to look at the sentry standing guard, and think to myself that he is not a noble protector but a ploy to assure us we are safe, it would be a betrayal of thought. Undetectable, yes, but wrong in the eyes of Felle all the same.

Other standards are not so flexible as thought. Felle’s second standard bans touch between deviants. This is a harsh standard, but not as harsh as the first: that which keeps deviants from engaging in relationships. We are not allowed such lives that include love. This is allowed only to common people. Love leads to children, and any children of ours would be the succession of deviance. While some may receive favor within the community due to skill and demand, such as Walt’s allowance to work in medical, there is no acception to deviance that allows him the right to love. So instead he finds it here, in this courtroom, where the sentry does not care to look and there are no prying Felle eyes.

Every morning we allow ourselves contact before leaving the courtroom, me for Eden and Walt for the medical wing. Each night we return, awaiting the grubbers, and allow ourselves a moment more of this closeness. This betrayal of custom may take our lives someday, but for our brief peace of mind, it is worth it.

He returns to the courtroom not long before the grubbers. He appears weary, confirming the Commander’s consent to my wish with an exhausted frown. We are given only a moment of contact before duty calls.

Ruth is first to enter the courtroom, her breath heavy from sprinting. She slides two bags, thick with collected goods, from her shoulders and into the first pew. Walt has already released me and we move to a standard distance.

“Johanna,” Ruth says, offering me a nod as she claps her hand upon my shoulder. It is formal and stiff. My sister has never been good with common gestures. I do not mind, though. It is contact, and that is enough.

“Walt.” Ruth addresses him separately, her tone full of warning, as though acknowledging us individually will create a barrier between us for when her back is turned. It has never worked in the past, and yet she remains cool in Walt’s presence. Icy, even, if she catches a notion of familiarity outside these courtroom walls.

“Good to see you,” Walt says. Ruth nods, agreeing with or simply ignoring his notion. It is hard to say which she means by the quick bob of her head. Grubbers file in past the sentry, giving him no second glances as they celebrate their successful return. Slowly, the previously barren courtroom becomes thick with life.

First enters Andi and her brother Pari. The twins linger at the door, jittery as he whispers something into her ear. Andi laughs, a shrieking sound, and continues to chuckle as she snatches her brothers bags to deliver at the first pew. They make me uneasy with their elfish grins, but I cannot help but feel sorry for them. Had there been only one, they would not suffer the deviant life.

The twins are followed by Mick, who should have fallen within the common standard. Unfortunately, his deviation hides within the mismatch colored eyes that sink deep into his angled face. One brown, the other a pale green. Though Felle may sometimes overlook deviations such as Mick’s, this courtesy is only extended to community members of excellent behavior and promise. Mick does not fit this category. He has a suspicious look about him, and knowing his past, I squirm with discomfort whenever his ferret features and mismatched eyes meet mine.

Kat is next to enter the courtroom. She smiles at me, knowingly, and jerks her head to Walt. I blush, averting my eyes to blink away the embarrassment.

At Kat’s heels is Jem, followed by John. The two could not be more different in both looks and nature. Where Jem is tall and thick with muscle, John stands hardly to his shoulders and can flaunt only the smallest of runner’s muscles beneath his pale skin. The circumstances of his gimpy arm led Jem to the life of grubbing, while John was born a common child. It was theft that sentenced him to the great grubber race, and his face is marked with a custom scar to ensure his status never gets forgotten.

“Good to see you Jo,” Jem says as I take his pulse. It races. I have no trouble finding the hard pumping rhythm, and I chart it quickly. Jem makes friendly conversation as I work, though I have little to respond with. He senses my tension and allows me to move on without pressure for response.

Walt sets to work checking vitals and marking each grubber safe for reentry to the compound. It is slow, tedious work, but I make myself useful taking pulses and searching for injury. I cherish this small contact and miss it immediately after it ends, moving eagerly to the next wrist and squeezing it tight. I am usually much quicker at it, but today I cannot keep my thoughts on task. Instead I have on my mind the news that must be given. The suspense builds with every grubber that enters the courtroom, shadowed by the setting sun behind them.

Malia. Michael. Dale. Even. Annita.

The line thins, trickling down to the final grubber – Oliver. I can hardly look into his eyes without revealing immediately the crushing secret I hold. Instead I busy myself taking pulses and reporting stats to Walt for documentation.

Oliver is silent while I take his pulse, as though he suspects the news to come. Some intuition within Oliver has sensed it, whether in his core or in the way I do not meet his eye. There is tension in my fingers pressed against his wrist, timing the beats. They are slow. Irregularly slow. As though he has not just completed a daily sprint, but instead is beginning to fall into an irrevocable slumber for which my words will only ensure its overpowerment.

The pressure of my pointer and middle finger leave two distinct white marks on his already pale flesh. Oliver wraps the long fingers of his right hand around the wrist I have just released, manacling it within his grasp. His face is that of a man defeated. I chart his numbers in an uncomfortable silence, though the grubbers do not quiet themselves. They sense nothing of Oliver’s tragedy. Andi and Pari are the loudest, though Kat comes in a close second with her vaulted conversation. The courtroom teems, but from the distant look in Oliver’s face, I can tell it is as though they are miles away. I hardly hear them myself.

Time has run out at last as the grubbers begin filing into the long corridor, Walt waving each through. I know it has truly been only minutes, but Oliver’s empty green eyes manage to suspend time. Most of the grubbers who leave are off to find food, others to the deviant tower for their beds. I watch them go, unable to dwell on Oliver for fear I might lose my composure. He, at least, seems rooted where he stands beside the gate.

Ruth is first to leave, eyes catching mine in a way that suggests I ought not be late for curfew. She does not say a word, but I am familiar enough with the ways of her eyes and what each tick of a brow means when directed at me. I nod, assuring her that I will cause no trouble.

Andi waits for Pari before the two disappear beyond the door, sprinting to the commons. They are followed by Mick, who waits for no one. Next goes Kat, then Jem, Dale, Annita, Even, and so on with the lot until the courtroom houses only four. Walt frowns, but I wave him away. He is gone before I can second guess my action, and besides the sentry, I am left with Oliver to myself.

I watch as the thick metal door is pulled shut, locking the gate to Gratis and its terrors of the night. Oliver watches as well, the two of us staring wistfully after the last sliver of golden sun on the horizon.

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