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A bead of sweat slowly trickled down his throbbing temple. His breathing became heavier. His hands shook as he scribbled down the final words onto the page in his messy scrawl. Three, sharp raps at the door. He ignored them, blew out the final dying remnants of flame and hid. The door splintered with a sickening crack and the once silent room was drowned in sound. He was shaking uncontrollably. It was not cold.
Daniel had turned sixteen the most recent Day four, Month seven, this date based on what his mother had told him. But the validity of this statement was questionable, since the pill would have long been administered by the time he was born and old enough to understand. Now she was dead, so he gave her the benefit of the doubt and chose it as his birthday. The year 1760 ADB, After the Day of Burning, was tattooed onto the back of his neck. A green fog of envy clouded their eyes as they told him how lucky he was to know the day he was born, but those who remembered the whispered stories passed down through generations knew the unspoken truth: birthdays were irrelevant. With one’s birth came a death. Hope did not need a large grave.
Rumors could engulf a person as fire does paper, for by the time both were through, only ashes remained. It was possible for them to envelop someone, and then vanish with them as quickly as they came.
Rumors also brought out an emotion as close to happiness as possible in the Officials. To them, a whisper on the wind was solid proof. A swirl in the mud was evidence. An overheard secret left lying in a corner was a testimony. It was of no matter, evidence or not. All led to the same fate.
The children laughed as they swapped whispered tales that, unknown to them, held more truth than fiction. The teenagers steeled their expressions and pretended not to be afraid. And the adults never once turned their heads as the uniformed, genderless, remnants of people glided by. As usual, the adults hid their fear the worst.
The bleached white faces of the Officials contrasted sharply against the ornamental black suits, black gloves, and black ties that adorned their skeletal frames. They barred the exits as they did every morning while the sun gradually rose into the crisp morning air, miraculously shining upon all but the mass of gray that shifted anxiously from one foot to the next. The Newsman of the City appeared and his script of painstakingly precise words began. They slowly wrapped themselves around the mass as a snake does its prey. It whispered so softly, they strained to hear it, yet detachment was proven impossible. They hated it but could not resist it. It was a voice that drowned in its own beauty. It devoured them, working its way through their minds. Piece by piece it broke them down, until all resistance was obsolete. The threats were whispered far softer than the other words. The near silence was the most frightening of all and they ached to be overwhelmed by sound once more. The voice described the fate of those who had dared to rebel against the Officials. They were gruesome stories, and those not prepared found themselves sick as they slowly dragged themselves and their minds away from the monstrosity that was designated as another mandatory event to add to their pre-planned day, and an inerasable memory in their pre-planned lives.
The first bell sounded and the mass scattered to work or school. Mothers walked quickly through the exits grasping at their children’s hands. The men laughed loudly while students quietly discussed the previous day’s lessons. Each of these groups of types of people was exactly the same. The members were in no way unique. They were simply insipid duplicates of each other. It was an amazing phenomenon to see so much of one person at once.
The way Daniel viewed them, they were each a copy of another copy in the group. Each one in a group had exactly the same features as the one standing next to them, and that thing to another, and so on. Daniel could not be placed in one of those groups. He was different. On this particular day, he chose not to congregate in the square as was the normal routine; but instead, Daniel hopped the fence and entered the woods. Unsurprisingly, he did not hear the bell.
The class was silent. The Teacher paced the aisles, his boots ringing out every step he took.
Snap “Who” snap “has decided” snap “not to” snap “join us today?” His voice dripped with the fuels of a rage yet to come. He had stopped pacing now. “Would anyone like to volunteer?” No one did. Not one person knew Daniel. They had never noticed him. Neither did the Teacher. He did notice an empty chair however, and now not a single person raised their hand.
“If no one will volunteer, I will volunteer you!” Splotches of red clouded his formerly pale face. He was shouting. “You!” He whirled around violently, his finger outstretched like a bayonet, prepared to impale the accused. “Who is missing?”
“I don’t know sir. Honestly, I don’t.”
The teacher scoffed “Now you dare lie to me?” His hand shot out and grabbed the boy by the neck. He carried him as easily as one would a feather. “Now,” he slammed the boy’s back against the cold brick wall, shifting his grip to a now quivering throat. “Tell me who is missing. The Officials are on their way and by the time they arrive you will tell me the truth.”
“But I don’t know sir! I’ve never noticed him my entire life! I swear!” The boy’s entire body was shaking now. He desperately searched the eyes of his former peers. Not one could bring themselves to meet his desperate gaze. “Someone, tell him! I’ve never met him my entire life!” They were mute. A cold, metallic feeling on the boy’s throat shocked him into silence.
“Three seconds.” Answering was impossible.
Three eternities seemed to pass until a small trickle of life ran down to the boy’s collar, staining it a deep, tragic red. Three sharp raps at the door and the barrier between life and death was opened.
The Teacher commended his students on their behavior as the boy’s screams grew fainter and fainter down the hallway until they were suddenly cut short. Here, ignorance was not bliss.
The air was still. The ground damp and cool. All was silent save his breathing and the occasional rustle of his body as he turned in his sleep. The sound of guns hurled themselves at Daniel. The dome of sleep shattered and Daniel was upright, prepared to flee. But the sound had only been a figment emerged from his dreams. Daniel’s breathing gradually returned to normal. The road connecting the City and the woods had once been short, but now it seemed to extend for miles.
The ash could still be tasted on the air. This ash however, was not the ash of wood or leaves. It was not the ash of those saved from the City by Death himself. It was the ash of knowledge. The ash of individuality. The ash of life. This ash was the ash of printed paper. Paper that was now 1,760 years old. With this paper burned dreams, prayers, and hope.
The Day of Burning was the Officials’ rise to power. The chaos ended with the taste of fire upon everyone’s lips. Writers saw their life’s work destroyed. Scientists watched their greatest discoveries blackened. Records of all those living in the country were charred to nothing. The culture of a people was burned forever.
Legends ran that the fires blazed for seven days and seven nights. This was a modest estimate. Truly, the fires burned for 18 days and 17 nights. The infernos lit up the darkness and burned into the early morning dawn. When they were finally smothered, it was only attributed to lack of material. Homes, forests, and lives were obliterated from the face of the earth. Save one city. This city sat directly in the middle of the country. This one city was the only place that sustained life. This one city was run by the Officials. Those who had not perished had only one choice.
The Writers were the first to be executed. Slowly, life and information was extracted. Interrogations lasted hours, but life had vanished with a single step through the door. Those who were strong did not let whispered names pass their lips. Many were not. For each name came five more names, and from each came five more, and so on. It took only two days to exterminate the authors.
Next were the Hiders. They stored their books after the fires in places where they could never be found. They were forced to watch as the Unfindables burned.
Finally came the Readers. They were lined up, one by one. The procession continued for miles, yet there never seemed to be a lack of Officials lining the sides. The line was silent. Anticipation and fear of what was to come hung over each and every soul.
When they reached the table, a choice was presented. A white pill was in one icy hand, and a black pill in the other. No words were spoken. White, the color of life, was deceiving. Black, the color of death, was foreboding. Many chose white. They were saved from the tragedy that was still to come. Those who choose black could not remember.
Daniel slipped through the gates to the city unnoticed. He listened for the Teller. It was one in the afternoon. The lunch bells began to ring and Daniel drifted through the empty bodies dragging themselves through life, or the equivalent thereof. The cafeteria was nothing more than a hollowed gray cube. It had no windows, one door, and bathed its inhabitants in a harsh fluorescent light.
“Today’s lunch will be boiled potatoes and a slice of meat.”
In this case, the Teller was pointless. The same food was served each day. Daniel quickly chewed the food and left.
“Caution, sidewalk may be icy” Daniel whirled around. Another Teller forced to retain the same job he had always had. It was mid-summer. There was no risk of falling.
Letters were forbidden. All letters. Writing of any type was punishable by death. There were no signs, no numbers, and of course, no books. The Tellers were the Officials’ communication to the common people. Where information needed to be conveyed, the Tellers were there. Announcing in a voice that seemed to match all others in the City, they were bound to stay completely still, never sleeping, never eating. The small children who asked what they were were quieted and hurried away. The question was answerless and thus was added to the others on the unspoken mental list.
The air in the basement was stale. It contained dust and dirt. It contained whispers of the past. It contained the remnants of a life forgotten long before. It was perfect.
It was a place where those willing enough to risk their lives in order to write could find a safe place to do so. Miraculously, it had remained unknown to the Officials since the immigration into the City. Volumes filled worn bookcases that covered the unpainted brick walls. Papers scattered the floors, creating an eerie rustling with each step. Some were a thousand years old, while some were only one. In each respective author’s eyes, the works that now served as a carpet were sure to be the greatest the world had ever seen. The reality always dawned that they could never leave the room. It destroyed some and for others, it spurred them on to know that a future generation would eventually find the work for which they risked their life.
Daniel had read each paper, many more than once. He poured over them tracing the letters with his fingers, understanding and savoring each word. The words never disappointed him. They were replacements for all the charred hopes. They were a replacement for the harsh reality that enveloped the inhabitants of the City. The words were the only thing that could save them but the words were the thing that would kill them.
Why? It haunted the thoughts of those not yet gone. The question was never directly asked. It need not be. The answer was inserted into children’s minds from the beginning of their lives.
“You are not an individual.” These were the first words of the same speech given by all Teachers. “We are all one. One People. One City. One Community. Writing will separate you from our perfect society. Here, there is no war, no poverty, and no crime. Denying yourself the privilege to be part of this community is the only crime. You deny yourself by writing. Writing will make you write evil thoughts. They will be thoughts of hatred and cruelty. Writing will make you an individual, and individuals do not survive long.”
This truth would hold for Daniel. He as an individual would not survive. Writing would eat away at him.
The problem lies with words. They are infectious, and once captivated by them, one is compelled to create with them. Daniel wrote of the lies fed to the people by the Officials, but for most it was too late. He described the wrongs of the “perfect” society. He told them the stories of the Day of Burning. He tried to save a society that had been destroyed 1,760 years previous.
Irony proved itself deadly. No one could read what he had written, and even if they could have, they would not have believed it. What had been told to them was all they could ever know. It was all they had ever wanted to know.
Crowds gazed with empty minds as the basement burned.