(Author's note: this general idea has been bugging me for a long time. This chapter could be kinda slow, but I was still feeling my way around the character. Sorry it's so long, and I hope you like it and will continue reading it, because I think it gets better! ~not Ross)
To the citizens of the state,
Yes, the citizens. This letter isn't to the governor, or the treasurer, or the secretary, or the special agents that creep around at night "keeping the peace." This letter is to the people who empty trash cans, the crippled librarian at the local elementary school, the fat, bearded baker who serves his croissants with a smile and an extra drizzle of chocolate on the side. I'm writing this for them.
I haven't lived in the state for twenty years. So why do I bother write at all? Because my guess is that the state, in all its "wisdom," has wiped the events of my teen years away from memory and from history. Thus, it is my job to put it back into history. And I trust that whoever receives this letter, whether it be carpenter or dog-walker or full-time mother, will help me with that task.
When I was fifteen, I lived in a small room still cluttered with old editions of the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazines and the New York Times and other periodicals, all of which pointed to the room's former occupation as a subway newsstand. Few things enthralled me more than sifting through the old newspapers and reading articles about the collapse of the national government so long ago. I'd settle back in my ancient van seat salvaged from one of the few remaining carpool vehicles before it was carted off the be crushed up into so many tin cans, wade through the thick, elevated writing, and keep time to the electric guitars screeching through the earphones of my scratched, dented iPod with my foot. It was how I spent all of my free time.
Don't turn away, away from yourself
Every time you buy into all the lies of the life they're feeding you
Don't play their game, it's not the way
Don't turn away from yourself.
Don't turn away, don't play the games
It's not the way.
My head went silent. I shuffled the newspaper aside and checked the cracked screen of my musical device to find it completely out of battery. Sighing, I slid it onto the charging chord attached to the wall and glanced at my clock. Probably time to leave, anyway.
…the lies of the life they're feeding you. Don't play their games. Manafest was one of the old lit artists from before the New Age movement. He didn't even know how right his song was – don't turn away from what you used to know, away from yourself.
I worked afternoons at a book shop near the stairs that was sure to go out of business soon. After all, once the New Agers ran out of books to throw away, we'd run out of book trash bins to steal. But for the time being, it supported me as well as my fascination with the old literature.
Old literature was different than all the trash they stuffed into peoples' heads up at the top of the stairs. For one thing, paper and ink housed older literature, not the Kleenex-thin electronic tablets that people could fold up and keep in the pockets of their beige clothes when they didn't need them. There was no charm to staring at an odorless screen. But media form aside, the old literature told stores of a world much like our subway community, a world where people wanted to be different.
Noon was one of the busiest times of the day in the tunnels. Half the population, it seemed, flocked over to the café to purchase their lunch – not a very New Age thing to do. Little kids came home from playing on the empty tracks to eat with their families, mothers stood between the book store and the café to wait for them. I wove through the chaos towards the quiet refuge of F.R. Shannon Books and let the metal door slam behind me, announcing my arrival with a loud clang. A little girl looked up from the picture book she was flipping through in bewilderment.
"Good afternoon, Jilian," Shannon's voice greeted from behind a tall shelf. No matter what kind of attitude I displayed when I slammed that door shut, that man greeted me exactly the same way. I could have sauntered into that cramped shop with a charging rhino at my right side and a car full of detonating dynamite at my left and he still would have said the exact same thing.
"Afternoon, Mr. Shannon," I replied.
He appeared from behind the shelf, still partially hidden by an armful of chick-flick-type paperbacks and an old atlas. "Wilson was due five minutes ago with more books. Go out to the stairs and check if he's coming and if he needs help, please?" Shannon, as old as he was, had shrunk to be about my height, which was not considered an impressive size, even in the tunnels, and his white beard probably contained more hair than a New Age guy's head. He looked like the kind of person who, if he had a lawn, would constantly scream at oblivious passers-by, especially teenaged ones, to get off of it. However, I had never met a sharper, more collected, more logical, more reasonable man in my life.
"Sure, Mr. Shannon." I liked working for Shannon. He didn't bother with senseless small-talk, and he didn't mind my occasionally inexcusably casual dialect. Just so long as the intent behind my words remained respectful.
The stairs were right behind Shannon Books, so it wasn't much of a chore to go check if Wilson had showed up yet. Before the states divided, the tunnels housed possibly the widest-used source of common transportation in the city: the subway cars. But with the rise of safety awareness (which was code for putting a million dumb laws out to "preserve" public safety), subways had been deemed intolerably dangerous and were shut down forever. Now the cars just sat scattered throughout the tunnels, providing living spaces for many of the community's families, and the stairs only gave access to the world out of which all of us had escaped.
That day, the stairs were, as usual, empty.
I had just turned around to re-enter Shannon's when the unmistakable clicking of New Age tennis shoes began on the stairs just above my head. No one in the community wore New Age tennis shoes. I froze, not knowing whether to run and hide from normality or to run up and sock normality in the face.
Normality strutted right up to me, dressed in its khaki cargo shorts and white t-shirt. He was the picture of New Age perfection: the regulated clothes, his engineered height (I estimated six feet), his perfectly trimmed "surfer dude" blonde hair, his crystalline blue eyes, the way he carried his lean, perfectly sculpted shoulders. It felt like I was staring at a computer generated boy-band member. "Who are you?" he asked. Yes, even the normalized voice. A breathing robot.
"What does it matter?" I asked back, sensing his awe at my completely un-normal brown braids. I attempted to stalk back into Shannon's, but he interrupted my attitude.
"What are you doing down here?" he persisted.
"Seems like I should be asking you that question, doesn't it?"
"Are we speaking only in questions?" A speck on shiny black plastic flashed out from underneath the hair around his ear. New Age computer junk.
"I don't know, can you keep up?" I challenged.
"Do you think I can't?"
I stared at his immaculate white shoes. Obviously, his parents had gone for the whole package when they sat down and planned out their kid: looks, wits and intelligence, and probably athleticism, too. How awful to be nothing more than a photocopy, and your birth certificate is just a receipt. "You can leave now," I said, shifting my stony gaze onto his face. "People like you aren't welcome here."
"People like me? What is this place, anyway?"
"It doesn't matter!" I snapped. "Look, why don't you just go back to your beige, three-bedroom condominium, polish your pretty little sneakers there, and forget you ever came down here, okay?"
He flinched. "Two bedroom. And you do know that the subways have been closed for years, right? Are you vacationing here from out of state?" He inspected me for a moment. "Nebraska, maybe?"
"The subways have been closed to people like you for years," I corrected. "And why anyone, even someone from Nebraska, would come here to vacation is beyond me. Unless other places have it worse."
"Jilian!" Shannon's impatient voice called from the door of his book store. "Either Wilson is there or he isn't!"
"He's not!" I yelled back. Then I turned back to the New Ager. "That's my cue to leave. Yours, too, since you're not Wilson."
"Your name is Jilian?"
"Only to him. It's Jil to everyone else. One L."
"My name is Lucas," he told me seriously.
"What is this, a sick joke? Look, I'm not Ender, I can see when people are trying to use me."
His face fell as if I had just ruined his comeback-of-a-lifetime. "You're not who?"
I could feel my face getting hot. "Ender. From an old lit book, not that I'd expect you to know."
"Jilian!" Shannon snapped again. The old man, despite his reputation, had a patience supply about as big as his supply of hair, facial hair excluded. "I have an entire stack of books for you to reorganize, and I find you standing on the stairs speaking to a boy?"
I glared at this New Ager, this "Lucas" fellow. My reputation with Shannon was slowly draining away like dishwater from an overflowing sink, and every bit of it was his fault. "He's leaving," I assured my steaming employer.
"What is this place?" Lucas asked, clearly hoping to have better success with the gnomish old man than he had had with me. "I thought it was just an abandoned subway tunnel."
"Indeed not," Shannon huffed.
"Mr. Shannon," I protested, "he's a New Ager! You can't just go dishing out secrets to him like you dish out old literature to me. He'll-"
"If it is anyone's secret to dish, Jilian, it is mine, agreed?"
"Yes, Mr. Shannon," I muttered. "Just don't let him get his sterilized hands on my books. Tell him he has to eat a plate of meatballs forkless before he can do that."
"What kind of reader do you have?" Lucas asked me, undoubtedly envisioning one of many brands of chinsy little sheets of metal that projected the words of New Age literature into its owner's brain.
"Paper and ink," I sneered. "Ever heard of that?"
Lucas chose to ignore me. "What does she mean, this place is a secret?" He must have been at least sixteen or so, but he acted like a five year old who had just discovered a garbage disposal for the first time. "Are you bootleggers or something?"
I spat loudly.
"Heavens, no, boy," scoffed Shannon. "We're a far worse sort of criminal: the kind of criminal who cannot even be arrested or sued."
"I don't get it."
"Anti-cultural maniacs, you might call it," I editorialized, borrowing a phrase used in an old TIME magazine article I had recently re-read.
"Just look at us!" I ordered. "Like my bright green t-shirt? That's not very 'normal,' is it? How about my sandals, or the color of my hair, or Mr. Shannon's argyle socks?"
Shannon jumped in before I ripped that kid's computer programmed head right off his neck. "'Normality' is far to defined these days for any human to function naturally anymore. And then, of course, there are all the safety laws and beaurocracy and greedy politicians and trashy magazines full of scandalous pictures. And the music that could have made a convicted sexual assaulter blush just one hundred years ago. The frivolous laws and law suits and-" He stopped, seeing Lucas' red cheeks. "I see that you know of that which I speak of."
Lucas nodded. "I do."
"You're basically perverted robots," I told him.
"Jilian," Shannon began, "let's save the editorialized company line for later, shall we?"
"No," Lucas insisted. "I know people are perverted robots. I know all that. You," he pointed accusingly at me, and I steeled myself for a lethal, slanderous, New Age lecture. It didn't come. His finger redirected its blunt gaze at Shannon. "And you." He spread his arms out to the entire community, the subway tunnel. "And this. It's like…"
Shannon waited for him to finish his incredulous thought, but he didn't. so the old man stepped in to help. "A community designed entirely to fit the conventions of standard living approximately one hundred years ago."
"Protest of stupidity, if you'd rather," I offered, earning me a strained Must you? sort of look from Shannon. I thought, Hey, not even the New Agers have outlawed free speech yet.
"Wow…" breathed Lucas, whose eyes couldn't have gotten any bigger without blowing up. "Do you live down here?"
"Of course," Shannon said, as if not living down here was considered a crime.
"Some live in the old subway cars. I sleep in my book shop. Jilian here camps out in an old newsstand." Once, I had told him that I didn't like the name Jilian and preferred Jil, but he had simply scoffed and told me not to be so ridiculous. As if I had just explained that during the night, magic unicorns came and made the subway cars flay across the state like Santa's sleigh. I hadn't mentioned it since.
"That is so sweet!" Lucas exclaimed, about ready to start jumping all over the place.
I rolled my eyes and glared at him. "Rule number one: we don't use dumb New Age exclamatory phrases. Or certain four letter words."
"Jilian, don't preach," Shannon scolded.
"I just don't want him running around giving Mrs. Vonderbrink a heart attack with his offensive language," I shrugged. Mrs. Vonderbrink: the oldest citizen of the community, one of those ladies who yelled at people to get off her lawn despite her lack of one.
"Mrs. Vonderbrink," Shannon reminded me, "has a pacemaker. She still makes the metal detector on the wall over there beep every time she walks past it." I snorted, envisioning the prim old woman going mental in front of a metal sheet tacked to the wall.
"How many people live down here?" asked Lucas, still looking more like Bambi than a human.
"About two hundred or so, give or take," Shannon explained. "Would you like a tour?"
"Now, hang on, Mr. Shannon," I protested. "We can't just go around being tour guides in a subway museum for any New Ager who makes a wrong turn and falls down the stairs! This kids, he may look harmless enough, but what if he's working for the police and he's-"
"Jilian, what have you been reading lately?" Shannon snapped. "This is not Nazi Germany, it's Boston. Living like this is not against the law."
"It may as well be," Lucas muttered.
His bitter remark stoked my fire. "I'm sure some idiot judge somewhere could find something illegal about this, is all. So sue me for being cautious."
Shannon's stubbly cheeks reddened. "To utilize one of my least favorite clichés, last time I checked, you have not yet been appointed leader of this community."
"Yeah, and neither have you," I muttered.
He gave me a light shove towards Lucas, though it shocked me so much that I tripped backward and slammed the back of my braided, brown head into the New Ager's freshly washed white shirt. He caught me. Shannon may have been a strict employer and not entirely approving of my especially rebellious attitude, but the closest he had ever come to even touching me was when he helped me carry an unusually heavy box of books. I knew hurting me was the furthest thing from his level head, but his action shocked me into silence – with an angered sneer, of course. "Show this boy around," he ordered. Then he stalked around and disappeared behind the heavy door of his book shop with a huff.
I glared at the slamming door in disgust has his request.
"Does that happen often?" Lucas ventured to ask me. He fiddled absently with the contraption attached behind his ear.
"Tell me something," I demanded. "How old are you?"
"Sixteen, three months," he replied without even thinking.
I snorted. "Figures. Well, you figure it out, then. Come on, let's finish this up so I can get back to my book."
"Which book?" New Agers are the kings of small-talk.
"You wouldn't know it. Old lit."
"What's it called?" he persisted.
"To Kill a Mockingbird." And I was reading it for only the sixth time, too.
He stopped walking. "Is that about how to murder a small, melodic avian?"
New Agers definitely won the prize for being the most ignorant people on the planet. "No. It's classic old lit. The title is a symbol used throughout the novel. Do you know what a symbol is? Besides the little Playboy bunny, I mean."
An angry cough rattled in his throat. "You really know how to annoy people, don't you? Well, I'll tell you that I hate all the New Age crap just as much as you."
I shrugged, trying to conceal my disgust. "I doubt it. You're talking it."
"You want me to prove it?" he demanded.
"You speak as if you are able," I quipped, feeling quite sure that he was about to make a complete fool of himself trying to prove something or other.
He dug his finger in behind the black plastic contraption behind his year and yanked. When he screamed, I jumped back in surprise, forgetting that most New Agers (especially the rich ones) like to stitch their computers to their heads. The object skittered across the cement until it hit the base of the stairs with an anticlimactic click. Lucas shuddered in pain and pulled his fingers away from the side of his head to reveal the shiny crimson blood curling around his ear. "That," he panted, his voice strained, "was a computer. This," he unstrapped a Velcro thing I had assumed to be a watch from his wrist, dropped it to the ground, and crushed it harshly underneath his heel, "was a global positioning system and a tracking device." He stood as still as the old subway cars, and I just stared at him. A drop of blood fell form his ear and landed on a mutilated transformer the size of a dime. It sparked. "I want to live down here," he admitted.
I didn't know what to say. He annoyed me, but only because he was a New Ager, and now that I could see the blood from where his computer used to be stitched dripping down the side of his face, I couldn't quite decide if he was still annoying. His willingness to renounce culture certainly did wonders to his supply of admirable qualities. "Then you'd better hurry up and get some bright teal pants or something," I challenged.
I hardly even bothered to suppress a grin of satisfaction at his horrified expression. For someone who had worn beige and white all his life, "bright teal pants" must have sounded like a death sentence.