"Today, I'm going out of town."
Those were the first words to enter my head upon awaking this morning. They were natural, almost obligatory. It was quite natural by now to poke my head out the window and gaze at the flawless, vibrantly-painted scene in which they have been placed, longing for rocky, potentially unstable ground. A new frontier, if you will. Something that had yet to be pummeled with tracks of eager, unsuspecting feet. Something that had not yet been mentally or literally defiled by dreams of the frontier to follow it.
Pulling my thick, fleecy robe close to my shoulders, I shook with cold as my bare feet made contact with the moist dirt underneath them. My home was relatively primitive; my neighbors always wondered why I was hesitant to invite them over for lunch or games or other forms of merrymaking. As I poured myself a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk, I glanced at the small table at the other end of the kitchen. To the right there was one chair, the only chair present in the entire house. Looking over to the left, I smiled, and kept smiling until the veins returned the color to my face and my breathing was deep and the frigid drafts no longer numbed my skin. No, I could never invite neighbors here. There'd be no place for them to comfortably sit.
Clad in numerous layers, I emerged into the white, crystalline landscape. Fresh snow fell to the ground, covering the crusty layer of ice that sullenly crunched beneath me as I walked away. Rosy-cheeked families were already outside, dutifully shoveling dicey, slick danger from their portions of sidewalk. Last night I'd already cleared the area in front of my house, and the black, tarry flecks of driveway were peeking from underneath nature's gauze. What a pointless waste of space—I had no need for a car. I could revel in simplistic pleasures; I could sigh in relief that my legs functioned adequately. A man briefly shoved his shovel aside to wave at me and I returned the gesture, hoping he would not feel the need to pour useless banter into the already cloudy morning. As he turned away to resume his task, I smiled at him. Adjusting my coat to cover the lower half of my face, I continued, when behind me I heard a pitter-patter of exuberance.
A dog, a collie not much older than a puppy scampered over to greet me, digging its paws into the ground and finding the choicest morsels of mud to smear upon me. While flailing nonsensically, it would let out an occasional bark, turn its head around to check for other humans, then bark again. It attempted to climb me, to reach my nose and mouth, and splatter its drool in every angle imaginable. I gently unhinged its paws from my overcoat and gave it a friendly pat. Its fur was soft and silky—and shiny, very shiny-- and its tongue lolled in calm appreciation. It was all right, I murmured. I didn't require the others. You shouldn't bother them; they're busy with their own matters. They're tirelessly maintaining their idea of a home and conversing with their idea of comrades.
I'd never seen a community that had flourished to quite the degree that Gladenside did. The town was young and growing and prodigal. It expanded and its innards functioned like clockwork, adding to its needs and cutting away at all unnecessary components. Every member held pride for Gladenside not only in their eyes, but in their hands and on their clothing. Though it was a requirement that every citizen be emblazoned with their community's emblem, they bore them proudly. The expanse of land and houses and schoolyards and markets was a child, nurtured by thousands of doting parents and grandparents. Hundreds, thousands of miles, seemingly the entire globe was covered by this success and fortune. Nevertheless, being on the town's outskirts I wished to take advantage of the opportunity to visit something a little older. This place I was traveling to had the time-bound knowledge of Gladenside's predecessors tucked inside it, and I longed to refresh my mind with their timeless wisdom.
A little girl wearing a bright, red waistcoat, dress, and tights approached me. I didn't know her or even know that she had existed up until this point. She ran toward me and I stopped, hoping that the encounter would be brief and trivial. Giving me a toothy, childish grin she said, "Wait, wait! My father says people mustn't travel without their Gladence! He says it's unwise!" She held the shiny symbol lovingly and carefully in her hands, and it glinted as if it had been carefully and recently polished. Because giving an innocent child the cold shoulder was not included in the itinerary for the day's expedition, I held my hand out for her to give me the gift.
She fervently pressed it into my outstretched palm. The pressure was so great that the blade severed the fibers of my thick, woolen glove.
"There you go! Now you're not unwise! You're not a tramp!" she giggled and started back to her house, yellow curls bouncing as she skipped along happily.
I had become loyal to Gladenside once again.
I vividly remember when I first became a loyal member of Gladenside. It was a long tale which began in a forest on a warm summer's day. Trees slightly tinted with the blushing colors of autumn rustled peacefully in the light breeze. I was out hiking with a friend whose laughter gushed in waterfalls and whose jovial, witty words breathed new life into my ears, giving them a worthwhile use. She exuded an energy, a vibrancy that was permeable to every living being with which she crossed paths. Wasps alighted on her shoulder and buzzed cheerfully. The hungry, teeth-gnashing coyote's growls were reduced to curious whimpers. She murmured words, English words, and animals turned their heads to her as if they could comprehend what she was saying. No other person could evoke a sincere smile from the most morose of people. Her charisma transformed uncountable malcontents, including myself, into the sort of person one would meet without later regret.
We stumbled across an open field and stopped for a leisurely picnic, sitting under a large, shady tree. I can't recall the stuff of minor, flitting conversations that flew by like birds, but I remember how the syllables seemed to form waves. Large, swelling waves that crashed peacefully, the sorts of waves tourists would try to catch on camera while visiting the ocean. I remember the shriek she uttered when a leaf fluttered to rest on top of her head. The forest tossed that shriek around playfully for several moments before its echo faded into the distance.
Gradually, footsteps. Heavy, plodding, uncountable footsteps poisoned the atmosphere with their cacophonous percussion. She glanced inquisitively over in the direction of the sound to decipher its cause. Her expression was one of subtle peace. A feeling of unexplainable fear welled up inside of me. I resented her optimism and simultaneously was grateful for its presence. A group of scruffy, distraught people emerged from the forest into the open. They were marching in a disorganized manner, toting signs worn by the elements almost to the point of illegibility. Their clothes were tattered with ages of being snagged by branches and the soles of their shoes were thin. It was apparent they were protesting, though of what we didn't know.
They gravitated to our aura of tranquility, faces chiseled into sharp, grave stories of woe. Their leader, a haggard, unkempt woman of about forty stepped forward.
"These times aren't going to last forever," she said. "There are people who will steal them from you. There exist those who will take everything you have and everything you want. Their dreams are being founded, and you cannot stop them alone."
We had no idea what or whom she was talking about, so we returned her entreaties with silence and imbibed her bitter concoctions with closed lips.
"You must join us, you must go with us," she implored. "There are routes unpaved that are left for both you and us. We must march together and shelter ourselves from the impending futility and damnation!"
She never told us what this damnation was in all her longwinded rant. We were never shown a picture of this supposed tormentor who wished to wrench happiness from our grasps. However, the fervor in the woman's voice conveyed that this invisible predator was closely following our tracks and breathing in our scent with eager anticipation, so we reluctantly agreed to abandon our wanton plans for relaxation and follow the fearful, disgruntled group to safety. Nodding and forcing smiles, we stepped toward them.
Coming out of nowhere, the rain fell in sheets, in sharp, jagged sheets that drenched all of us from head to toe. A rainbow of paint rivulets skittered down the outstretched arms of those who bore signs. Members of the group who attempted to speak were rewarded for their efforts with mouthfuls of water. My friend gestured to me that she didn't want to follow this disheveled mess around after all, and I readily concurred. The predicted danger was transparent, but the rain was tangible and therefore credible. We attempted to trace our path back from whence we came, but it wasn't visible and soon she wasn't either. Wandering around in soaked clothing with a ruined map, I kept my eyes peeled for signs of eyes that glinted light more brilliant than any ray the sun could emit, but turned up with nothing except scrapes, bruises, and mutilated leaves clinging to every inch of clothing. Trapped in the bewildering clutches of the forest, I wandered around haplessly. Like it or not, I ended up marching anyway.
Though I lost track of time, I'm guessing it was nearly four or five days before reaching some sort of civilization. The street lamps of the town ahead shone relief and the glow of cozy buildings drew me like a moth to a flame. I thought of my friend, hoping that she had already reached this place, for it seemed pleasant and welcoming enough and the thought of her being pummeled with dislodged twigs and splashing raindrops sent shivers through my limbs. My ordeal was over until I knew hers was.
The most salient aspect of this community was the manner in which its citizens carried themselves. There was little to no loitering; people held their heads up and moved as energetic string puppets might. They were attentive and aware of their surroundings. The tiniest sound didn't escape their notice, and as I stepped under one of their intricately carved lampposts, they found me. They found me vulnerable and weakened from lack of rest and food. They found me staring goggle-eyed at their buildings, their streets, themselves, and they demanded not explanation, but penance.
They ran toward me in a way that caused me to glance down and check for life-threatening, gaping wounds. By the time I could view them clearly, my heart began racing and I ran to avoid those same wounds. Blades flashed brightly in the moonlight. They were curiously shaped, as if one had taken a long, thin knife and bent it into a corkscrew shape. Motorized handles whirled it around in dizzying circles, and the air was filled with the faint buzz of pending terror.
"Who's that person?"
"I've never seen her before in my life!"
"Is she carrying a Gladence?"
"No, she's holding nothing!"
"She's a stranger!"
"Take her down. Don't let her out! Get her, get her!"
I took advantage of the massive shadow behind one of the factories, running to the deserted side where worn machines sat rusting in their orange-red decay. Hunched under them, I listened to their agitated voices fade away, traveling in the opposite direction. I crept silently around the building to an unlocked, slightly opened door, sensing its inviting warmth. Crouched in a small, empty room I slept with difficulty, waking frequently in response to every extraneous noise and assuming a position from which to bolt. Just before sunrise I heard the footsteps of pursuers milling about the junkyard outside, and locked the door with not a second to spare. Their "Gladences" scraped the walls and the door handle visibly jiggled with force such that I worried they would tear it away. Ear next to the other side of the door, I listened for sounds of stifled screams and cries for help. I didn't know where she was or if she had been found. I hoped fervently that she had found some form of shelter significantly warmer than mine.
"Pardon me, were you looking for someone?"
I had just stood up and was preparing to run from the building, when a man in a butcher's apron casually unlocked the door that led to the factory's interior. He smiled amicably and carried no weapon. Realizing that I had no choice but to obtain help from this stranger, I told him that I was looking for a friend. I described her in detail—deep, dark brown eyes, about my height and age, short, shiny dark brown hair, wearing a tan fleece jacket and camouflage pants.
Something was uncannily familiar about this man. I brushed it aside at first, as he couldn't have been connected with any of my pursuers from earlier. I hadn't loitered around long enough to view their facial features in detail. At any rate, if he had been chasing after me with a Gladence, he would have remembered me and alerted other tormentors. Still, I knew I'd seen him somewhere, and was determined to recall the time and place.
"Follow me," he said. "I think I know who you're looking for." He smiled and started toward the interior. As we passed through a series of empty warehouse rooms, my heart jumped with glee. I was going to see her again, and we wouldn't be separated afterward. We would run away from this horrific town and Gladenside would become a mere, shuddering memory discussed over strolls through parks, where we'd laugh now that we were safely out of harm's way.
Then, the stench became noticeable. The stench of blood, of newly cut flesh, old flesh, burning flesh, all sorts of flesh. I'd guessed that the factory was, in fact, a slaughterhouse, but somehow I'd imagined smelling chicken, or pig. This smell was unidentifiable and it made me nervous. The man's apron was flecked with blood and I didn't know from where the blood had been poured.
I saw the racks of meat, stretched out, being cut away at. The man uttered some words that I never heard. The marbled, white-red rotating slabs turned my stomach and twisted my heart into knots. The legs were too long to be those of pigs, the torsos too narrow for bovines. Choking back a scream, I jumped as I realized that the meat was that of my own species.
Frantically, I glanced around everywhere. "Where is she? WHERE IS SHE?" I implored.
"She's here, all right. Wouldn't be any other place," the man said.
"But where is SHE?" I screamed, running toward the pathetic, drooping piles of skin and scalp underneath the hanging flesh. Each one was grislier than the next; the skin had been cut away with vigor, it had been cut away so as not to leave behind any resemblance of a sentient being. I saw her, I saw my friend, lying limply in pieces in the farthest corner. I recognized her by her scalp, by her hair that still shone when matted with her own blood, still shone under the dim, musty lights. It shone from every angle, that remnant of her, and it was her. She had been caught. Those scoundrels had taken her life before she could run away in fear, as I had. Perhaps she had been brought in while I was sleeping in safety in that tiny, dank room. She might have been kicking and screaming; she might have been marred past recognition and too agonized to care anymore. Maybe when the same man who casually showed me to her scraped a butcher knife across her smooth, youthful face, she breathed her last in relief that she wouldn't feel pain any longer.
Maybe he smiled at her as he did earlier at me.
They were all immune to my hysterical outbursts, going about their business like one would take care of a monotonous chore. As the man walked away, I noticed curious blue, green, and black stains running down the sleeves of his shirt.
Bit by bit, I pieced together Gladenside's gruesome puzzle. I learned that the Gladence was the town's symbol and that by law each citizen was required to carry one, or face fatal consequences. I learned that when one became a citizen, when one joined the ever-growing following, they were given this abominable blade and were instructed to use it against anyone who didn't display one. There were tons of Gladences, all individualized in some way to mark ownership. Deep, linearly shaped letters, flowers, hearts, birds, miscellaneous etchings, they could all be found on the handles. The Gladences were manufactured in a variety of sizes, some so tiny they fit into the entire palm of my hand. They were meant for children, for five-year olds. Those under five would wear a tiny, encased Gladence as a necklace.
Once the blades were uncased, they were twisted deep into the vital organs of unsuspecting passersby such as my friend. Once embedded inside the quivering victim, they were directly forced from the body without a twist, so as to snag muscle, bone and nerve tissue, increasing the bleeding to a fatal level. A child would receive gifts and recognition for his or her first loyal act to the community—the first killing. Here, that meant more to people than birthdays.
Other than that, these people seemed staggeringly normal. They seemed like the type with whom I could have carried a pleasant but boring conversation.
They were disgustingly admirable when it came to efficiency. No victim went to waste. Hair was stuffed into pillows, the bone crushed and used for gelatin, the meat ground up, canned, and later placed in a dish facing a happily wagging dog or pacing cat. The rest was burned as a source of heat and fuel. My neighbors took pity on my "plight," thinking that I was destitute. They would invite me to warm my frozen feet over her embers, and I couldn't tell them why every time this occurred my nose would become runny, and my eyes would water like someone had dumped a bucket of pollen near them.
Yes, I was going out of town. I was going to the ten foot by ten foot town where thousands lived in quiet and harmony, where nobody ever slept but danced around all day and night, blown to and fro by the wind. It had no name, but it had the charm and appeal of stifled antiquity, and I wanted it.
Clutching my Gladence that the little girl had given me, I admonished myself for my cowardice. Were my convictions so short-lived as to tote this symbol around like I admired her murderers? I left my home without a Gladence, the one I had wrenched from a dying young man in a state of panic as I fled the slaughterhouse. I'd told myself that I'd never be separated from my friend again after I met her in that dreadful place, and then ran, while she lay sprawled for all to use for their own selfish purposes. I ran faster than I'd ever run before.
"Drop it," I silently screamed. "Drop that thing in the snow and keep walking. Don't look back at it. Let it be buried. Let that unsuspecting child sever her foot over it later. Don't take what's not yours."
The town was located in some of the last remaining forested area of Gladenside. It reminded me of that day she and I met our enemies, how we destroyed our lives over refusal to walk in the pouring rain. It reminded me of lead paint splashing onto plants and tiny creatures, unnatural, clashing colors that interrupted our serenity. I longed for the forest again, for the shade and tinged leaves and birds and that intermittent waterfall of laughter that cleansed my soul. Frozen grass crunched despondently underneath my feet, knowing this treasure would soon be forgotten. This time, it would.
My hand wouldn't let go of the Gladence, however. It kept a tight reign on the sandpapered handle that had once held someone else's insignia. This town had no name, for Gladenside did not deem it worth enough for one. It was not a part of Gladenside, but it had been created by its existance. There were no barriers, no fences, no orange flags or warning signs to prevent one from approaching. Just an enormous hole, stuffed with the ashes of those who had stumbled inadvertently into this disaster. Just those who had either been unable to escape or those who hadn't the heart to render another's situation futile in order to preserve their lives.
These citizens didn't mind me after I proved to them I could sling a blade into someone's spleen as well as the next. They took kindly to my half-assed waves. They gave me a job at the local marketplace and allotted me a plot of land with a small but suitable house, giving me perplexed glances when I told them I didn't want heat or a fireplace or a stove. They told me that the extra cost of electricity was minimal; I refused to buy her remains for twenty dollars per month.
The day was quiet and only the faint crackling of branches could be heard. Ashes swirled around playfully and seemed to smile at me, inviting me to join them and dodge Gladenside once and for all. Yes, I was definitely going out of town.
"Why are you here?"
I turned around to see an elderly man advancing toward the ashes, quizzically viewing the unusual sight before him.
"I'm moving," I told him, concealing the Gladence in my pocket. I held my open hands out to show him that nothing was in them. "I'm not loyal, I'm not a citizen here. I refuse to carry around your stupid twisted blade." He didn't even blink, but turned away with a tape measure to obtain a precise measurement of the expanse of the appealing town before me.
"I mean it," I said for emphasis. He never turned to acknowledge me.
"What are you waiting for?" I shouted incredulously. "I'm taunting you. I'm not carrying a Gladence, and I'm ridiculing your entire community! You took care of the others, why won't you dispose of me? I'm ready for that thing to take my life. Put me with the others, so that I might meet up with them again! Go ahead, get it over with!"
"I'm afraid that's not possible," the man said.
"What do you mean, it's not possible? For crying out loud, it's required!" I retorted.
He shook his head. "Not anymore," he replied calmly. "Today is the dawning of a new day for Gladenside. We have accomplished what we needed, and now we are at peace. There is no need for a rusted blade anymore. We're stowing them away, and don't wish to see them."
Panic leapt to and fro within me. "This is the last time you'll ever have to commit this deed," I said. "Just one more time, that's it."
"I refuse," he said.
"I'm going to have to do it myself, then," I blurted out. "I'm going to drive it into me this very second, and either you or someone else will remove me to the slaughterhouse to dispose of me as you will. I'll be the last pile you'll ever have to add."
"My last pile has already been added. You should go home, get some rest. You're exhausted. You need a respite. Put your feet over a warm fire and close your eyes. Eventually they'll all fade away. Mine did."
"Yours did? What do you mean, 'yours'?"
"Oh, people I once knew. They talked and grinned and died. They faded. I have a family now that means the world to me. Ashes are not the living beings you once knew. In fact, they're nothing." He sighed heavily. "You want to know where your friends have gone? They've vanished. They simply do not exist anymore, and you won't find them in here. Go back home. I'm busy."
"If you all are so against the Gladence now, then explain why a little girl gave me one and told me I needed it!" I exclaimed, drawing the blade from my pocket. He looked at it and snorted dismissively.
"If you are so against the Gladence, then explain why you kept it," he replied. I guiltily looked down. "I can answer your question. I told my daughter to give ours away to those who appeared to want one, for a historical souvenir perhaps. I guess you looked like the sort who could really have a use for one. Apparently you are."
"So if I do the deed myself, you'll burn me and throw me in with the others?" I asked with one last dash of hope. I tested the point of the blade against my back. Its point was sharp and crisp, and the drops of blood that emerged began to freeze within seconds.
"Gladenside is everywhere now. There's no use for me here. I can't stay," I said, testing the point again, scratching it through my clothing across my skin.
"We'll bury you properly, give you a custom headstone," he said. "We'll call your relatives and family and friends, only to find out you have none. You should meet others. There are always people of every disposition for you to meet. Whoever those you mention were, they'll fade. You'll never be sane again until they do. They must. They're gone, they've vanished. You must realize that."
"No, she's not!" I yelled. "She's not! I see her everywhere and in everything! I see her limbs climbing from neighbor's chimneys! I see her face in the streetlamps every night! I smell her on the breath of contented, healthy dogs that run up to greet me! She's been discombobulated and rearranged to faultlessly fit your town's needs. You've taken her cold corpse and trampled the laughter and unspoken words and everything of hers that was nonmaterial! She's everywhere I travel, wondering why I didn't follow her! I was loyal to such a great extent to Gladenside that I was disloyal to her, leaving her to incineration without a charred hand on her shoulder to comfort her!"
"And, in the long run, whose fault is that?" he asked. "Cowards emerge from wombs, not from towns."
Whirrr, whirr, whirr…
"Who's to say you wouldn't be one as well, had the tables been turned? I'll bet anything you would have run had the same been done to you!"
"Start your own revolt, if it bothers you so much," he said. "Start it all over again. Begin with me. Run me through, then go back and run my wife and daughter through the same way. The grass is always greener on the other side. You just have to be dedicated and devoted enough to reach it."
There was no use arguing with him. He could run to the greenest grass in the world, endlessly chasing monotonous fields of small emerald, dew-laced stick-like plants. She wasn't grass. She was a forest, full of variety and life and vitality that a field of grass could never harbor. She was the forest they cut away to make room for the grass, and everything that fled dizzyingly in search of nonexistent shelter when they felled her. When I reached my house late that night, I kicked the wall in anger, dislodging thirty-two Gladences from their shelves. Their blades embedded themselves in the frigid earth at a grotesque variety of angles. I took the one I had been given, lovingly inscribed "to my darling daughter Lily," and threw it into the pile.