Ethan was ignoring the stack of term papers on his desk when the buzzer on his phone sounded off. He heard it vaguely, somewhere off in the distance, but it seemed to lack any meaning. His eyes were instead glued to the monitor in the corner of the room, where the swirling green and yellow showed a storm moving in over the city. Rain, for some reason, excited him. Perhaps it was the variance, the fact that no two storms were really alike. Sometimes it was a heavy downpour, other times nothing more than a light drizzle. The truth was that it operated randomly—a rarity in a world where control was the norm.
It was Mrs. Hart’s voice, tinny and distorted through the second-hand phones, the most advanced equipment the university could afford to buy. Ethan wondered why she was bothering him, what sum of knowledge one receptionist could hold to rival that of an incoming storm. It was just rain and clouds and thunder and yet he was entranced by their movement on the radar. In this indeterminate time between fall and winter, no one had any clue what would drop from the sky when it finally arrived. It could be anything, wonderfully anything.
No, Ethan told himself. The possibilities were not endless. They were guaranteed to be some combination of previously seen behavior and now more predictable than ever. Watching the meteorologists on the television simply took all the fun out of it.
“Ethan,” said Mrs. Hart, her voice more urgent.
He raised the remote to mute the weather report and hit the speaker icon on his phone. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Hart?”
“I tried to stop him, but he insisted on going up.”
Ethan frowned. “Who?”
“I didn’t catch his name. He said it very fast. All I saw was the badge. He’s a Litagent, Ethan.”
“What does a Literary Agent want with me?” He glanced around the room for any sign of contraband. Anything not Listapproved would have to be hidden before it was…
The Litagent was already standing in the doorway to Ethan’s office, his eyes lost to that same involuntary search for something out of the ordinary. His face had a hollow tint to it, as if he had never known happiness or sadness, but rather lived in a world populated only by ambivalent emotions. He was dressed in Litagent standard, which meant a black suit and white shirt accented with a thin, black tie. On his head was the customary pointed fedora, which he promptly removed without any trace of flair to reveal his brown and perfectly manicured hair.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hart,” said Ethan, pressing the speaker button again. He stood, trying to act natural. “Can I help you?”
The man smiled something fierce but spoke with a subdued monotone as if he had years of experience asking people questions. “You are Professor Ethan Kemp?”
“The same Professor Ethan Kemp who teaches Modern Composition?”
Growing defensive, Ethan crossed his arms and nodded. “Yes, and who might you be?”
“Now that’s an interesting question, isn’t it?” The Litagent crossed the room in two effortless strides and inspected the two chairs in front of Ethan’s desk. Sitting down in the one between Ethan and the door, he continued, “Does it mean who am I currently, in a philosophical sense? Or do you want to know who I am in regards to my given profession?” He stroked his chin. “A devilish question indeed. One might say there exists simultaneously no and infinite answers.” A mock frown. “I might be anyone.”
“No,” said Ethan. He sat down, unsure if his legs would support him any longer. “I didn’t mean it literally. It was merely a prompt for you to introduce yourself and state your business.”
“But then why ask the question that way? Why not just ask me directly as I did you?”
There was something about the way the man asked questions that made Ethan feel like he was on trial. Litagents were like that, always probing and prodding to see what they could wrangle out of someone before they slapped the cuffs on and dragged them off to an Education camp. It made Ethan nervous and suddenly he didn’t want to engage in pointless banter with a man that could put him away indefinitely.
“I apologize,” said the man, dipping his head slightly. “I’m Litagent Nolan, Precinct Twelve.”
“And what brings you to our fine university, Mr. Nolan?”
“I’m not sure yet,” he admitted. “Why don’t you tell me? Is there any reason for a Litagent to be on campus today?”
Ethan spread his hands. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Forgive the deception,” said Nolan, smiling. “I had to take the chance. You would be surprised how many people are just waiting for the right opportunity to confess their sins.” From the inside pocket of his jacket, he produced a letter-size, manila envelope. He placed it on the edge of the desk and pushed it towards Ethan. “We have recently discovered some illicit writing in an underground circular and would like you to help us categorize it. Are you familiar with the Mercer Gazette?”
Ethan shook his head and reached for the envelope.
“It has a small following here, though we usually find it amongst the garbage on the street. There have been a few on-person arrests lately.”
“Is this it?” asked Ethan, removing a pressed booklet. The cover was blank except for a small line in the bottom right that said Exhibit A.
“No, this is just an excerpt of a particularly… imaginative story.” There was noticeable disdain in his voice as he said the word. “The rest of it was your normal juvenile fare, ill-formed amalgamations of previously published works.”
“Shakespeare’s Noose,” said Ethan, reading the title of the story on the second page. He looked up for confirmation. “Sounds like a retread to me.”
“It’s much more sinister than that. Would you please read it?”
“I couldn’t. It’s illegal to read non-Listapproved writing.”
Nolan folded his hands in front of him. “You are assisting in an investigation and your expertise is needed. A one-time exception has been made and is on file with Home Office.”
“I still wouldn’t feel right,” said Ethan.
Nolan sighed. “I was trying to be polite, but you know as well as I do that I am not asking you. If you do not read this story right now, I will hold you for obstruction of an official investigation which carries with it a full six months incarceration at an Education camp.”
“It wasn’t my intention to interfere.” Ethan put up his plaintive hands, felt the adrenaline surge. “Surely someone in your position can appreciate my dilemma. I could lose my job.”
“You can read the story or, if you’d rather, we can take a trip down to the precinct and have a much longer discussion about what you stand to lose.”
Ethan locked eyes with the Litagent for several seconds, but the courage just wasn’t there. This man was not to be toyed with. Relenting, he scanned the first sentence of the story and felt himself being drawn in immediately.
As far as underground stories went, it was considerably more in-depth than the brief scribblings usually found in smeared ink on the index card propaganda that littered campus. It started with a wooden stage and four players practicing a scene. Two large trees flanked the outdoor arena and from one of them hung a hangman’s noose. It swayed in the breeze above the players’ heads, pointing to each of them in turn as if choosing a victim. The director of the play sat in a posh chair just offstage and shouted orders that were never followed. Towards the end of the story, the issues of interpersonal relationships and structured storytelling were examined from inventive and sometimes obscene angles.
“You disagree with the message?” asked Nolan, noticing the look on Ethan’s face.
“I’m not sure if there is a message, but I know these discussions are not Listapproved. I don’t think there is anything in this story that isn’t blatantly illegal.”
Nolan nodded in agreement. “Certainly, the story as a whole is a terrible affront to the Agency, to the very standards to which we adhere. We don’t typically follow up on illicit writing unless we catch the perpetrator in the act. It is hard to prove that a specific person was responsible for a piece of literature. We tend to only prosecute demonstrated cases of systematic abuse. This, however, is the first that we’ve seen of this style.”
“And you want me to help you identify it?”
“Yes, Mr. Kemp. I would like you to tell me as much as you can about the mechanics of this story. I need to know what kind of troubled author would write such things.”
Ethan furrowed his brow and looked over the story again. He traced the words with his finger, picking out the odd combination of adjective and noun.
“To start with, the story begins in past tense but ends in present tense, which creates discontinuity. And then you have the four players, whose stories are told in third-person omniscient. But when the director takes over, his paragraphs are in first-person objective, which makes no sense, almost as if he exists in a different timeline.”
“Where would a person even read first-person objective these days? That style has not been allowed in decades.”
“I suppose if there are underground gazettes, then there are probably underground libraries where old stories can be found.”
“In my experience,” said Nolan, lifting a corner of his mouth, “people don’t just suppose anything. You see, supposing requires thinking of possibilities and that requires imagination and imagination stems from dreams.” He waved his hand in demonstration of the various levels. Then, narrowing his eyes, he asked, “You’re not dreaming, are you, Mr. Kemp?”
The panic rose in Ethan’s chest, but he managed to scoff. “That’s a very serious accusation, even for a Litagent!”
“Apologies, again. I did not mean to offend. These are all standard questions that need to be asked of everyone I meet. I get very little choice in the matter.” He waited for the red to fade from Ethan’s cheeks before continuing. “Please go on with your analysis.”
After a deep breath, Ethan flipped to third page. “The development of the Daisy character bothered me. She’s much too pat for her outward demeanor. The author says she is beautiful, yet her words don’t match up.”
Nolan quoted, “With her soft hair like tiny tubes of bottled sunshine and eyes that sparkled like polished emeralds.” He dropped the sing-song. “Like emeralds, Mr. Kemp. Do you know what that means?”
“Her eyes are green?”
“Exactly! Now, my technicians have assured me that this was written by someone young, possibly even a student. So I ask you, in all seriousness, where would a person that age ever see or hear about a person with green eyes?”
“Not only that,” said Ethan, “why would they write about them? How do you write what you can’t see?” There was a momentary pall while Ethan considered the implications. “The author is dreaming, isn’t he?”
“That’s why you’re so interested in this piece. You’re looking for someone violating the suppression laws, someone who can dream. I never knew such a person could exist!”
“They can’t,” said Nolan. “This person is circumventing federal statutes.”
Something clicked in Ethan’s mind. “Federal crimes are punishable by death. You’re asking me to aid in the capture and execution of another human.”
“For the last time, I’m not asking you, Mr. Kemp. What happens to the author is not truly your concern. There is no need to take this personally, unless…” His words faded.
A grin formed on Nolan’s lips. “Regarding the overall composition method of this piece, what is your opinion regarding plot structure and delivery?”
“It was fine,” said Ethan. “It is standard as far as I can tell, with the exception of the exchange in the middle.”
“And that exchange, how would you classify it?”
“Well, the two plot-threads overlap. One goes to a point in time and then the next picks up, but from several minutes before the last one stopped. Each paragraph tells a simultaneous story from different viewpoints and on different timelines.” He shrugged. “Looks like the standard Barksdale-Higgens method.”
“Did I mention that this gazette is only found locally?”
“So we believe the author must be native to our area. To learn something as complex as the Barksdale-Higgins Formalism, it would require at least a brief stay in university, would it not?”
“Probably. This seems too practiced to be pure instinct.”
Nolan was nodding rhythmically, gobbling up each tasty answer. “And which class, Mr. Kemp, would an aspiring young writer have to take in order to learn this method?”
Ethan’s stomach flipped over and then tightened into a painful knot. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“I have here the syllabi for the three composition classes offered by this university. Of them, only one lists the Barksdale-Higgins Formalism as part of the curriculum.” He slid the single sheet across the desk. “Could you tell me the name of the professor assigned to this class?”
Seeing his own name printed across the top of the paper suddenly made him realize that the Litagent wasn’t really there to ask his opinions. As far as the Agency was concerned, Ethan Kemp was the number one suspect.
“Let’s be reasonable, Mr. Kemp. Your syllabus states you spend one class period, approximately fifty-five minutes discussing the method so well-executed in the story. Considering the mental fitness of the average student, would you really have us believe that someone could learn to implement this style with so little training?”
“You think I did this, don’t you?” asked Ethan.
“You are my primary lead, yes.”
“Then why didn’t you just say that when you came in?”
Nolan shrugged. “I had to know for sure.” He raised his eyebrows, pretending to be impressed. “It was all very convincing, of course, the way you acted as if it were your first time reading it.”
Ethan remained quiet, unsure of what to say.
“Silence,” said Nolan, “the last refuge of a guilty man.”
“No, you don’t have enough to go on. You said it yourself that you need more than just circumstantial evidence.”
“Well, you’re right about that,” admitted Nolan. “That’s why we administered a urine test and searched your apartment.”
“You what?” Ethan felt the urge to stand, but he knew that any quick movement would elicit a response from the metal hanging under the Litagent’s arm.
“An Agency team has been at your apartment for the last hour. Now that we’ve concluded our business here, I suggest we adjourn to your home and see what they’ve discovered.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
On cue, two suited men stepped into view from both sides of the door. They stood with their hands folded in front of them and waited.
“Now,” continued Nolan, “will you cooperate or do I need to restrain you?”
One of the men dangled a pair of handcuffs.
“I’m not stupid,” said Ethan. “I’ll come quietly.” He collected his briefcase from under the desk and loaded his papers and effects into it. The chair spun as he removed his coat and pulled it on. Crossing the room, his eyes locked with Nolan, who seemed to be studying them. “What?” he asked. “Are you afraid I’m going to sock you?”
Nolan laughed and put a hand on Ethan’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Mr. Kemp.”
* * *
Ethan had to wait outside on the landing while Nolan and crew went to work on his apartment. They had left the front door open and he watched and cringed as they carelessly shuffled through his bookshelf, desk, and even the little magazine cozy by the couch. At one point, he heard glass break in the kitchen and he tried to force his way inside, but the same pair of Litagent enforcers from his office were there to bar his way. In all, he spent almost three hours pacing the breezeway, the better of that time watching them huddle around his computer, quietly discussing the contents of his files.
Finally, with a practiced swagger, Litagent Nolan walked out of the apartment, removing the rubber gloves from his hands in satisfying snaps. “This is the worst part of my job,” he said. “It’s the material, the membrane, you see. It traps the heat. You never realize how badly the skin on your hands needs to breathe until you encase it in something impermeable.” He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dried his hands. “But those are the breaks, are they not?”
Fatigued and fed up, Ethan let his face settle into an indignant sneer.
“Such reproach for such a minor inconvenience,” said Nolan. He nodded to his search team and dismissed them. “You should be happy, Mr. Kemp. We found nothing incriminating in your papers or your terminal, aside from some questionable photos. Nothing too serious though, no need to involve the vice squad.”
“I guess I should thank you then,” said Ethan, sarcastically.
“Not necessary.” Nolan waved his hand dismissively. “Your tax dollars are more than enough compensation for doing my job.”
“Does this mean I’m not a suspect anymore?”
Nolan smiled and winked conspiratorially. “Everyone’s a suspect, Mr. Kemp.”
Another Litagent crony appeared on the steps carrying the envelope that Ethan had seen earlier.
“Ah, here we are.” He handed the envelope over. “Your copy of the story. We would very much appreciate it if you would examine it a few more times this evening. If you recall or notice anything that might be useful to our investigation, please give us a call.” He pointed to the business card stapled to the envelope.
“And if I don’t?”
Nolan removed his hat slowly, checked the brim for any dirt, and replaced it on his head. “Well, Mr. Kemp, it seems that for this particular task, I am indeed asking you. I hope you realize how rare an opportunity this is.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Ethan, biting his tongue. “I think I may be a little busy tonight trying to clean up. It’s amazing how dirty a place can get in one afternoon.”
“Yes,” muttered Nolan, casting a backwards glance at the papers scattered on the coffee table.
“Can I have my apartment back now?”
Stepping aside, Nolan extended his arm towards the open door. “We’ll be in touch.”
Ethan stopped just inside his door and spoke under his breath, “I can’t wait.” He slammed the door loudly and waited. After a few moments, footsteps sounded and then faded into the distance.
The Litagents had left nothing untouched in his apartment. Sofa cushions were out of place, video cases had been opened and strewn about the floor, and someone had even gone through his pantry, opening boxes of cereal and rummaging through the contents with their fingers. It was too much of a mess to even begin to fix, so he stood for a long time with his hands on his hips, trying to decide on a course of action.
At last, he begrudgingly navigated his trashed belongings and sat down at his chair in the office nook. There were several folders open on his terminal, the foremost of which was a supposedly hidden directory with a small collection of photos that Ethan had found on the network. They were mostly of younger women, dressed down in flimsy lingerie, posed seductively for the camera.
He sighed deeply, felt a tremor of relief. They could have taken him in for that. No questions asked, just a summary fine and maybe jail time.
Glancing quickly at each folder before closing it up, Ethan made sure that they hadn’t moved any files around or worse, deleted them. Their software had opened every folder with a document in it, folders full of tests and quizzes and final reports. Even his browser cache had been examined; highlighted were seemingly random entries in his search history. Shaking his head, Ethan hit a combination on his keyboard and wiped the desktop clean. He leaned forward and put his head in his hands, thinking.
His imagination fizzled at the request for possible motives and execution plans. But where there should have been ideas and theories, there was only darkness, an empty place where nothing but advertising jingles and public awareness messages circled in an unending siege. He had read enough propaganda to know that it was all a result of the dream suppression laws. Without that nightly exercise, the brain lost all of its ability to improvise and imagine. As a matter of course, writers had always relied on a certain amount of creativity. Now, they had nothing to go one except Listapproved plots and characters.
A line from the story came floating back to him, a strange combination of prepositional phrase tacked to the back of an interrogative fragment that seemed to purposefully swap indefinite and definite articles. Although it was extremely non-Listapproved, it did show a certain satirical intent with the source material. But to properly mock the standards, an author would have to be familiar with them.
The evidence suggested that the author was a student and it wasn’t beyond possibility that the student was one of Ethan’s own. And if that were true, then he had samples of the author’s work on his computer. With a quick double-tap of the control key, he brought up a search window and began typing in words. There were several hundred files that mentioned eyes and even more that contained something green. The combination though didn’t make one appearance, which made Ethan huff in disbelief. He wondered how no one could have stumbled upon that accidentally or why he himself had failed to think of it.
After several minutes of fruitless searching, it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to discover the author’s identity just by looking for matching words. If the Litagents had been any kind of efficient, they would have done the same instead of just clicking randomly through folders. There wouldn’t be any illicit writing on his computer, but if Shakespeare’s Noose was simply a bastardization of a previous style, then all it would take to discover the original would be to unmangle the words and that would take the expertise of…
A professor, thought Ethan, someone who had studied the application of the standards and who knew the theoretical extrapolations that would end in the unusual and illegal.
Ethan stood, excited, and retrieved the envelope from the end-table near the front door. He pulled out the story and placed it on the copy-stand next to his monitor. With a deft keystroke, he opened a blank text editor and began transposing the story. For each dangling participle, Ethan reversed the order of the words and removed the ambiguity. For each sentence that ended on a prepositional phrase, he added objects and changed focus. All passive sentences were changed, sometimes requiring attribution to a random character or prop just to make sense. In the end, it wasn’t very different than grading papers for elementary students, for those still learning how to adhere to the standards.
Time passed quickly as the previously creative work was reverse-engineered into something resembling acceptable writing, safe writing. Ethan changed the final exclamation point into a period at half eight and then sat back with an exhausted but satisfied grin on his face. The rewrite came in at a respectable four thousand words, down from seven in the original. That put it under the limit for a typical short story assignment in his Modern Composition class.
Ethan let out a groan and lifted his arms above his head to stretch. He stood slowly and hit the print icon on his keyboard. As the printer began to hum, he walked to the kitchen and glanced at the windows, surprised to see that the rain had already let up. It had pounded the complex earlier, when he had been forced to wait in the breezeway. A shudder went down his spine as he thought of the agents going through his stuff.
Some of the cupboards were still open and he kicked at the ones at knee-level. From the shelf next to the refrigerator, he selected one of the few plastic cups that the Litagents hadn’t touched. Something in his brain told him to be wary of the ones that had been knocked over, but he couldn’t articulate the source. He puzzled the question of why they would want to poison him as he filled up his cup with ice and water.
He took a long sip, felt the cool sensation spread in his chest.
The last page was falling into place when Ethan returned to his desk. He discarded the original story and replaced it with his new copy. As if reading it for the first time, he scanned the paragraphs for any unusual phrases, something unique within the confines of the standards. Finally, something popped in the fourth paragraph down.
“It’s not a stage,” said Ethan, “it’s a deck of a ship.”
He reread from the beginning again and suddenly everything began to fall into place. The director was actually a captain and the players were really deckhands. The noose itself was nothing more than a loose tie for a sail that billowed out of control above their heads. Smirking, Ethan realized he was reading a retread of a Disney pirate story. As one of the seventeen major themes, the pirate epic had already been done numerous times before, but the real clues were hidden deep within the words. It only took a few minutes to realize that it was all there.
The captain wanted his sail fixed. Only one could climb the mast. Only one could bask in the glory of the captain’s favor after a job well done. As for the others, they would be resigned to staring daggers, hatred fueled by a named feeling unused throughout the story: envy. Three pairs of envious eyes would watched a deckhand descend the mast, three sets that in a more expressive world free of standards and persecution, would be positively green with envy.
“Incredible,” whispered Ethan. He crossed his arms triumphantly.
After the feeling had settled, he resumed his search, overcome with optimism. Sorting the assignments by year and semester, he was able to filter the list down to the stories most likely to match his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Noose. Adding terms for pirates and ships and synonyms for envy further whittled the list down to eight stories. He took another sip of water as he began to read the first one.
By story five, exhaustion had started to take its toll on him, forcing his eyes closed or letting his mind drift on words that were read but made no sense. It wasn’t until the sixth story that he found what he was looking for, a veiled reference to coveting that didn’t seem to fit in with anything else. He read the story twice and by the end of the second read-through, he was convinced that he had found his man. There was a name typed along the top of the page, Donald Pembroke, but it was unfamiliar. No face in his memory seemed to match it.
Ethan’s fingers stumbled on the keyboard as he searched the student directory for Donald. It turned out that he was still a student, now in his senior year. His address and phone number were unlisted, but faculty had access to the information through a special link. He picked up his phone and dialed the numbers slowly as the adrenaline surged in his chest.
“Hello?” The voice on the other end was young and vibrant.
“Yes, hello,” said Ethan, “this is Professor Kemp. I believe you had my Modern Composition class a couple years back.”
“Um,” replied Donald, “yeah, I guess.”
“Sorry to bother you so late, but I was going through some old assignments and I rediscovered a piece you wrote. I was wondering if we could meet to discuss it.”
“Yes, please.” Ethan started to feel a little uneasy and struggled to think of a convincing motive. “I’m putting together a compendium, a ten year retrospective of student work. I would like to include your story.”
“Okay,” said Donald, sounding disinterested. “Where do you want to meet?”
“How about the Belmont Café in West Campus?”
“Yeah, I know the place. I have a break from classes at one tomorrow.”
“That’ll do just fine, Donald.”
“It’s Don, Professor.”
“Alright, Don. See you tomorrow then?”
“Okay.” The line popped and clicked before going dead.
Ethan replaced the phone on the base station and watched his fingers tremble. It was completely crazy, seeking out a wanted author. If they found Ethan with him, there was no telling what they would do. Guilty by association, no two ways about it. They would hunt him down, drag him away, and ultimately, let him hang. All for a pair of green eyes.
For once, Ethan was thankful that he couldn’t have nightmares.
* * *
It was only after twenty minutes of meaningless small-talk that Ethan could finally admit to Donald the true reason for their meeting. He told him about the rogue piece of literature he had found, a provocative short story called Shakespeare’s Noose. Not mentioned was the fact that a Litagent had brought it to his desk. Instead, he claimed to have found it in a bathroom stall on the fourth floor of Beckins Hall, though he was unsure whether that would pass muster. For a second there, the way the blood drained from Donald’s face made Ethan think he had made a terrible mistake. The young man’s body tensed up, like he was thinking about bolting for the door.
“So,” said Donald, his nostrils flaring under the pressure of several deep breaths, “did you like the story?”
“Yes, most definitely! I thought it was very…” He paused, lowered his voice despite the boisterous noise in the café. “It was very imaginative.”
Donald’s eyebrow flittered, jumped up and down imperceptibly. “So you know then?”
“What I am,” he replied. There was a small amount of misguided pride in his voice. “I’m a dreamer.”
Ethan put up a warning hand and looked cautiously around the room. Most of the other students were engaged in their own private conversations or had their eyes and attention glued to the minitops in front of them. No one seemed to care that they were even in the room. Still, he felt the fear creeping up on him. “Why would you say such a thing? If anyone heard you admit that…” The words were too painful to say.
“I know,” said Donald, nodding his head. “They’d string me up in front of the unimaginative masses and let my body sway like a leaf in the wind.”
“I can’t believe you would be so callous. You’ve haven’t even lived a fourth of your life and already you’re trying to end it.”
His eyes grew angry and resentful. “I’m not trying to end it! The damn Agency is, Litagents are! And for what? Because I see things differently? Because I like to write about things that aren’t real and paint the green pastures that don’t exist anymore?”
“You paint as well?” Ethan was genuinely surprised.
“A lot of us do.”
Covering his mouth, Ethan stared ahead blankly. The thoughts were trying to run around his head again, but in the darkness, they formed no noticeable path.
At this, Donald let a wry smile creep onto his face. “You have no idea, do you?”
Coughing, he replied, “I’d heard stories, but I thought it was all propaganda. There can’t possibly be that many of you. The Litagents wouldn’t allow it.”
“Even a lighthouse has its share of shadows. Just because our benevolent government doesn’t want us to have free will doesn’t mean they can just suppress four million years of evolution. People want to do what they want. They want to imagine and dream and believe in God.”
Ethan’s face paled, unsure of whether the boy was actually suggesting…
“Not personally, no,” admitted Donald. “But I have spent time imagining the concept. When you think about it long enough, you can start to see how dangerous religion would be to the current oligarchy. Religion requires faith, faith requires imagination, imagination requires dreams. It all comes back to what happens when you close your eyes at night. Nip it in the bud, as they say.”
It was amazing that someone so young could be so versed in the ideas that even elders in modern society preferred not to pursue. “How many of you are there?”
“In my circle?” Donald looked up, off into space. “Hundreds, I’d say. And there are probably more out there that are just afraid to come forward. We usually get forty to fifty people at our weekly meetings, sometimes more if a well-known artist will be in attendance.”
“Where do you meet?”
Smiling, Donald shook his head slowly. “Sorry, Professor. No non-dreamers allowed. That’s about the only way to screen for Litagents. Sometimes I think they’d rather die than have a real dream. I think they’re afraid of what they’ll learn about themselves.”
“They say that dreams are a form of neurosis, that they are the wild ramblings of a brain unbridled.”
“Straight from the Listapproved Pedia,” said Donald, with disdain. “If you want a definition of dreaming, you have to look to the old thinkers, to the uncensored philosophers. Dreams have been called extensions of our subconscious desires or of our unconscious selves.” He paused to see if Ethan would wrap his head around the concept. “That’s why dreams are so dangerous. They’re self-centered. And if people start thinking about themselves, then for themselves, well…” He trailed off, let the doomsday scenario hang in the silence.
Ethan nodded, though the agreeing gesture was only habit. “What do you dream about?”
“Anything I want,” replied Donald, enthusiastically. It was clear to Ethan that the young man enjoyed talking about dreams. “That’s the beauty part, isn’t it? Dreams can be anything you want them to be. You could imagine a world without Litagents, without the oppressive hand of Party power. It could even be something stupid, like last night. I dreamt of a train station. I was there with some girl and we were trying to get back home and the only train headed that way didn’t leave until half six the next morning. So we were trying to figure out what to do and wandering the parking lot looking for people who could give us a ride.” He paused again, bit his lip. “Then I was playing some kind of game with a friend of mine from high school. I forget what we were playing for.”
Scrunching his eyes, Ethan asked, “What does that all mean?”
Donald shrugged happily. “I honestly don’t know. And I honestly don’t care.”
“Then why do it at all?” His voice rose out of frustration.
“Because, every once in a while I dream something so fantastic, so out of this world, that I feel compelled to write about it. And since only a small amount of the population is dreaming and even fewer than that are writing, the chances that another person is writing the same story as me are incredibly slim. That gives me the opportunity to put out something completely unique! I didn’t take my characters from the Listapproved pool, I made them up myself! Sometimes my stories don’t even have plots. Check the standards next time, you’ll find that no plot isn’t an option.”
“I thought I impressed upon you the importance of plot during my class,” said Ethan, forcing an uneasy chuckle.
“And a fine job you did, sir.” Donald bowed his head graciously. “But like most things I’ve learned at university, it was total balls.”
“Life doesn’t have a plot. There is no structure to what happens to us in our day to day lives. Maybe there is destiny, an overall goal for each of us to reach, but there is a vital difference between us and the characters we write about and that is that we are real. If plot is just a device for moving a story along, then we, being more real than notions of predefined series of events, should be able to discover them. Look around you. Do you feel any plot here?”
Ethan shook his head and put up a warning finger. “Don’t tempt it like that. All it would take is one Litagent overhearing our conversation to set a plot in motion. Once arrested, we could find ourselves in a prison escape or courtroom thriller.”
Smirking, Donald spoke matter-of-factly, “You came looking for me, Professor. If this conversation scares you, we should probably go our separate ways.”
“No,” said Ethan, waving away the idea with his hand. “I think I want to join you.”
“What? Be a dreamer?” Donald looked the professor up and down. “We usually don’t get university types.”
“You make it sound so glamorous. I have to know what it’s like.”
Donald leaned forward across the table and grew serious. “You sure?”
Ethan nodded solemnly.
“You know there’s no going back right,” he asked in a hurried whisper. “Dreaming is like the worst drug you’ve ever taken. Once you experience it, you won’t be happy living without it.”
“How do you do it,” asked Ethan, matching the tone again. “How do you make yourself dream?”
After a moment of contemplation, Donald pulled his backpack from the ground and placed it in his lap. He dug around the pockets, undoing several clasps to get at a small plastic bag with little brown pills in it. He retrieved one and passed it discreetly to Ethan. “Take it now,” he said, casting a quick look around.
“I don’t know, it’s a very public place.”
“It’s the only way I can be sure you’re with us,” said Donald. “Unless I watch you swallow that pill, you won’t be able to come to any of our meetings. Those are the rules, professor.”
“Tell me how it works.” Ethan stared at the pill in his palm.
“I don’t know the science,” admitted Donald. “The way it was explained to me is that dream suppression attacks receptors in the brain that are responsible for translating the subconscious thoughts into sense-information. It’s like a trillion little bridges that the dream is trying to cross. The chemicals in the pill target those receptors and bridge the gap. It’s similar to an allergic reaction. Eventually, the receptors swell up and scar so many times that they just stay permanently enlarged.”
“Then why do you still carry the pills around?”
Donald smiled knowingly. “Why did missionaries carry bibles?”
Ethan cocked his head, thought about it for a minute. Then, before he could lose his nerve, he popped the pill into his mouth and took a long drink of water.
“Well, I guess you’re not a Litagent. I was really hoping you weren’t.”
“I don’t know, something about the way you taught the standards. I think I could tell that you didn’t believe in them.”
“But I do.”
“Sleep on it tonight, we’ll see what you think in the morning. You never realize how small your cage is until you see the world beyond it.” Donald glanced at his watch and frowned. “I have class in fifteen minutes,” he said, zipping up his bag.
“When’s the next meeting,” asked Ethan eagerly. “I want to attend.”
“Not until this weekend,” said Donald. He stood and nodded to another young man who had been sitting in the corner the entire time, ostensibly ignoring their conversation. He stood and walked past them to the door, nodding in mock politeness as he did. “That was Jonathon Bailey. He’s… one of us, I guess you could say.”
“Not very friendly, is he,” asked Ethan, rising from his chair.
Donald shrugged noncommittally. “People are strange when you’re a stranger.” He pointed accusingly at Ethan. “He doesn’t trust you, thinks you’re some kind of Litagent spy. So for him, it’s all about the risks you’re willing to take. Some people would die for the causes they believe in. Others, well, others would rather sit in the corner and read, if you know what I mean.”
“Well, this has been very informative,” said Ethan, extending his hand.
Donald shook it vigorously. “Never thought I’d be teaching a professor about anything, let alone how to break the law.”
“There is law and there is common sense. I can’t help that they want to keep the latter hidden from us.”
“Common sense often makes good law,” said Donald, putting his hand over his head.
As they walked to the door together, Ethan asked, “Did you come up with that all by yourself?”
Donald shook his head in friendly disbelief. “Professor, I have such things to teach you.” He put his arm around Ethan’s shoulder and pushed the door open.
Both men squinted against the bright afternoon sun. Adding to the disorientation was the sound of tires squealing on the asphalt. Ethan put his hands to his eyebrows just in time to see four cruisers skidding to a stop in front of the Belmont Café. Men in familiar suits exited the vehicles with their weapons drawn, pointed straight at Ethan and Donald. A fifth car arrived a little more leisurely and from it stepped Litagent Nolan. The smile on his face was ice cold.
“Mr. Donald R. Pembroke,” he said, his voice booming to impress the crowd. “Under the authority of the Literary Agency of Precinct Twelve, I hereby place you under arrest for the unlawful transcription and distribution of banned materials.”
Donald stood motionless, dumbfounded.
Nolan spread his arms as he got closer. “Your printing run has ended, Mr. Pembroke. All subscriptions have been cancelled.”
Slowly, Donald put out his hands with his wrists pushed together. One of the officers broke formation and approached with handcuffs. As he put the restraints on, Donald turned to Ethan, a thin smile on his face.
“It seems that I am still the student,” he said, softly. Then catching Ethan’s eyes, “Good show, Professor.”
“Yes,” said Nolan, “you still have a lot to learn.” He turned to Ethan. “I must say, Mr. Kemp, your assistance in this matter is most appreciated. We would have caught him eventually, but with your help, we have one more rogue author off the street a lot sooner than expected.” He grabbed Ethan’s hand.
“Um,” said Ethan, shaking hands numbly. His eyes kept drifting to the side, to the subdued expression on Donald’s face.
“Summary execution,” said Nolan, to the officer. “It has already been scheduled with Home Office.” He beamed with pride as Donald was led away. Once the suspect was safely confined to the cruiser, he returned his attention to Ethan. “You should have informed me of your progress.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ethan, automatically. He allowed himself to be led away from the sidewalk and towards Nolan’s car.
“I’d like you to come down to the station with me.” Nolan opened and held the passenger door.
“Am I under arrest?”
“No, my friend,” said Nolan, slapping him on the shoulder. “We just need to debrief you, maybe find out how you were able to identify him out of all of your students. I think that by working together, we can find a way to ignore those photos we found yesterday.” His face changed to that unmovable stern. “Do we have an understanding?” Again, he extended his hand.
“Okay,” said Ethan, realizing he had no choice. This time, shaking Nolan’s hand made his heart race with fear. His eyes focused on the crowd of people behind the Litagent, those that had assembled to see what all the commotion was about. Standing there with hatred dripping from his eyes, was Jonathon Bailey.
* * *
It was well after eleven when Ethan returned home from the Precinct Twelve offices. Litagent Nolan had made a grand show of apologizing about the slow pace of the modern justice system, the very same that would have one of Ethan’s former students publicly executed in less than twenty-four hours. Most of the night was spent in the uncomfortable presence of Litagent specialists, profilers whose only job was to understand writing and attribute it to a writer beyond a shadow of a doubt. They had a habit of asking the same questions repeatedly in several different ways, only changing the order and wording to see if they could elicit a new explanation or better yet, the truth.
Of great interest to them was the exact methodology that Ethan had used to connect the linguistic dots and form a picture of the suspect they knew as Donald R. Pembroke. It wasn’t easy explaining the concept of reverse-engineering; the specialists seemed to have no formal training in literature and thus, no frame of reference that would make sense to them. Ethan did his best though, tried to simplify things when necessary. He went into great detail about the complexities of the Barksdale-Higgins Formalism and showed them where their own translations had gone wrong. It was then that the specialists went quiet and asked nothing more of him, by far the most frightening moment of the night.
But just like that, the metaphorical dawn broke in the room and everyone in the office began thanking him for his assistance. His stomach ached and churned with every congratulatory shake of the hand. Every grasp of sweaty fingers felt like another betrayal of Donald, the first of many men that would die because of him. There could have been even more, had they listened to the younger specialist who suggested hiring Ethan full time to do literary investigations. It only took one look, one captive stare with Nolan, for both of them to realize that it could never happen. He would help out if forced, but both men knew the extent of his reluctance. An unmarked cruiser ferried him back to Belmont Café and from there, he drove himself home in the dark, feeling sick from all the latent adrenaline.
His apartment was still a mess. The half-hearted cleaning he had done earlier in the morning had barely made a dent in the living room. He kicked aside some stray magazines and sat down on the couch, his mind consumed by a jumble of conflicting ideas. There had been something altogether unsettling about being inside the Litagent offices. The fear had always been at the back of his mind, that one day he might write or say something that would land him in trouble. But never would he have expected to be working hand in hand with them, helping them prosecute and capture what he perceived to be a pleasant, if not overly ambitious, young man.
It was too much excitement to take. His days were supposed to be filled with lectures and homework, time spent teaching to an indifferent audience and then grading their indifferent assignments. He shook his head angrily and headed to the bathroom. The routine task of brushing his teeth was supposed to distract him from the events of the day, but staring at his own face in the mirror just made his mind wander. Nothing synced up, not his face, not his dealings with the Litagents. They were the enemy as far as he was concerned, faceless bullies who snatched children in the night and executed them for knowing a nursery rhyme. It wasn’t his crowd, these Literary Agents. He should have been running away from them instead of running with them. Too much of the world had changed since Nolan walked into his office the day before.
He was exhausted when he climbed into bed, stripping off most of his clothes while reclining on the soft sheets. It was time to put the day to rest in the hope that the next would be in a world where this anomaly had never happened. Tomorrow had to be a new day, back to the grindstone and the comforting safety of routine. His eyes closed and his breathing slowed. Inside his head, a well-designed drug was seeping its way out of his bloodstream, filling in the folds of his brain tissue. Tiny receptors, which for so long had been shut off and unused, began to swell.
The dream began in a house, an old one, covered floor to ceiling in a smattering of ridiculous relics from the previous century. There was wood paneling on the walls, a style that only made things seem that much more stale, that much more distant in memory. But it was not his memory, not first-hand. They were things he would have seen in a picture book as a child, before the time of his childhood and picture books both ended.
It was the past, Ethan half-realized. It was a home that wasn’t his but was from a time when people were allowed to be eclectic in their decoration. The furniture was a dead giveaway, but it was almost as if something was hanging in the air, an old sense of familiarity with the room. He couldn’t place it, not really. It was more like an amalgam of different things, bits and pieces from every which place. But then it hit him, what this strange sensation was. Youth, he thought. He was young again.
Around him, something was happening, almost like a party. There were people standing about the room, laughing and talking, some of them dancing awkwardly. Everyone looked so happy, yet in his heart, Ethan felt an involuntary sadness.
A boy called Gary was there, standing in front of Ethan and talking loudly about the latest gibberish. Another, Henry, his last name, was standing on the other side of him, nodding his head in time with the loud bass line coming from the next room. Strangely, his lower lip seemed to be devouring the top one as he concentrated on the music.
There were other teenagers from his past, like Linda and a mousy blonde called Katrina. Someone’s mother was there as well, no doubt a chaperone for the lustful young people who couldn’t be trusted to their own devices. There was a pervasive swell of chattering in the room, words that made no sense to Ethan’s ears. It threatened to overwhelm him, send him running for silence, but it all came crashing down, muted to a dull hum, when he spotted her.
Deborah Hammond was there.
Deb, he had once called her, in the time that he had known and loved her. It was just his luck, considering how many lifetimes had gone by since he had last seen her, so long that it almost hurt to take in those features again. She was probably a lot taller now than she was then, wherever she was in this great, wide, confined world that they lived in. He saw her lips, saw the way they were turned down at the edges. It was the wrong way, he thought. She didn’t look happy at all.
The party dispersed into a rain that fell in a barrage from the cloudy sky. It enveloped Ethan at first, then faded into a light drizzle, pushing the brunt of the storm into the distance where its thunder no longer frightened but rather comforted him with the knowledge that there was something bigger than he, some problem that went beyond his lingering feelings for little Deb Hammond. On his left, he felt Gary walk up and stand next to him as they both watched Deb stroll leisurely through the rain to her car.
“How’s life,” asked Gary, in a voice that couldn’t have been his.
To this, Ethan chuckled, wondering what right a boy from his past had to ask him such a loaded question. But then he found himself replying automatically. “Life,” he began, then paused as Deb opened the door to her white coupe, a smallish car with a fabric roof. “My life is like leaving the prison and spending all my time staring back in through the bars.” The words sounded foreign, almost nonsensical.
Gary didn’t reply and Ethan didn’t bother to turn to see if he was still standing there. The rain was soft and welcoming and he walked through it with his shoulders slumped and thumbs in his pockets. He had missed his chance to talk to Deb and there was no telling how long it would be before he saw her again. He kept his eyes on her coupe as it zigzagged on the road, coming close then turning away, taunting him. Finally, it came to rest a few feet from where Ethan was standing and for all the serendipity of it, he still didn’t feel happy.
She stepped out of the car with an angry glance towards the engine. Something had gone wrong with the vehicle and he wondered for a moment whether that was something within his power to do, consciously or not. She looked over as he approached, stared at him for the longest nothing of a minute, just enough time for him to mistake the rain on her face for genuine tears.
“Are you walking,” he asked, as she turned away from him.
“Looks that way,” she replied, over her shoulder. The disdain in her voice was more than familiar; it was the one thing he truly remembered about her.
He had to stop and summon all the courage he could muster. He’d done this before, on a distant day in a forgotten past, in a time and place where girls like her were to be feared, where the prospect of rejection weighed heavily like a damp blanket that he couldn’t shake off. It was funny to him the way things changed, the way young fears ebbed only to give way to others.
“Can I walk with you?” He was already anticipating a negative response.
Instead, Deb slowed just enough to let him close some distance between them before picking up again. She was a few steps ahead of him, but she made no attempt to lose him. They walked in silence, rain beating on the already saturated grass. Strangely, there was no acknowledgement of the cold, no shivering at all.
It actually felt good, walking with her. It was the first thing he had done with her in forever and it was so simple that it made him want to scream. He weighed it in his hands, walking and happiness. How could something so small push the meter so high? Is that all he really wanted in life? Was that all he really needed to feel complete, walking with this girl? It made no sense, not in any way he looked at it. Considering the love, considering the lust, why were they just walking? There should have been something else.
He felt humble walking behind her, a feeling that wavered to guilt. He tried to engage her, every now and then, but all he got in return were worried glances. Finally, as they crossed into the front yard of yet another house he didn’t recognize but that was clearly his, she turned to him and grabbed his hands, sending a tingle up his arms.
Pulling them out in front of her, palms up, she examined them closely. “Are your fingers okay?”
He didn’t know how to respond, but he made an affirmative effort nonetheless.
“I thought you did something to them.”
“No,” he replied, giving them a once-over. They were a little red on the fingertips, but nothing out of the ordinary. “Would you like to come in and dry off?” He motioned to the house with his head.
She considered the proposal for a full minute, looking the house up and down. Behind her eyes was a dead spark, a semblance of intelligence but undeniably artificial. “Aren’t your parents home,” she asked.
“My parents split up,” he said, wondering if that was true then. “I don’t think anyone is home.”
Thunder crashed in the distance, that impossible distance where there was no world, only clouds, only rain.
Deb looked at Ethan with her lifeless eyes and he could see how much she had changed in his mind. Something about that depressed him again.
They stepped into the house, drawing water into the foyer. The lights inside flickered and a sudden, unknown fear gripped Ethan’s heart. He felt his mind wandering, jumping ahead in the telling of the story, seeing the ending as if he had written it himself. Frantically, he turned to Deb to say something, warn her about the impending change that hung in the air like an unwanted odor. She had already shed her wet shirt and shorts. In the blinking lights, she stood occasionally illuminated in matching black underwear, with a white towel draped seductively around her shoulders. Something about the lace and frill were so familiar. So ancient, yet so familiar.
“You don’t even play golf.”
Those were the last words that Deb said before fading into a final blink of the lights.
When the darkness faded, Ethan found himself walking a winding road and dragging a surprisingly heavy driver behind him. He was surprised to see the golf glove on his hand and even more surprised to see that there was a man walking in front of him, presumably his golfing buddy. Deb was right, he didn’t play golf, and certainly not during a heavy downpour.
“The next hole is just up ahead,” said the man without looking back.
It was then that Ethan realized they were playing a cross-country course where the holes had been scattered across town. At an arbitrary spot on the front lawn of a regal house, the mystery man set up and whacked a ball down the street. Ethan followed with a similar shot and then they continued their march. For several minutes, the pattern repeated, wandering across streets and lawns, whacking the ball in seemingly random directions, sometimes into traffic. Though he could find no scorecard, Ethan knew his opponent well ahead. The mystery man was a very good golfer, even if his club did disappear when he walked.
At some point, Ethan became aware of the presence of another man who seemed to be following the game but at the same time was trying to appear aloof. For whatever reason, he gave off the aura of authority.
Ethan walked with his club in front of him, hidden by his body as if he needed to protect it from the authority man. He made his way through the crowd but couldn’t shake that familiar sensation of walking with someone, though he knew that it wasn’t Deb. It was the authority man, behind him and gaining fast. His golfing buddy appeared to be no help as all he did was babble on about laws and wooden stages and girls with romantic green eyes that persisted even when her eyelids closed.
They passed through a neighborhood and between two houses and then stood ready to tee off from the lip of a large ravine. Suddenly, a shrill ringer sounded under the dull music of rainfall. The other golfer answered it angrily, unhappy to be disturbed during his free time. The voice on the other end was loud and much closer than the thunder. It was calling out distances in a frantic voice.
“Three meters,” came the first scream.
Ethan looked around wildly, expecting something horrible, recalling the appropriate scene from memory.
“Two meters,” said the voice, on the verge of panic.
The golfer gave a yelp and began to scamper, making a tentative dash for the ravine and throwing his club into the air.
“One meter!” The voice was positively hysterical.
Litagent Nolan sprang up from inside the ravine, baring a set of sharpened teeth. Donald screamed something fierce and dove into the forest, his golf hat askew and nearly falling off. When Nolan followed him into the brush, Ethan broke and ran for the houses. The cell phone was on the ground, still calling out distances, bigger and bigger as the Litagent fell away.
At that moment, everything began to make a queer kind of sense. It became plain, even as the trees began to bunch up, almost leaning inwards towards Ethan. He ran back between the houses and out onto the asphalt cul-de-sac. All around him, things were bunching up, forming a wall, forming a cage.
The thunder came closer and for the first time, he felt a horrible dread collect within him. Things were getting worse, priming the world for some great transition.
In the distance, a curious red icon hung over one of the houses.
“Ladybug sunrise,” said Ethan, meekly. He extended his fist towards the circle. Slowly, he spread his fingers, just as the icon began to grow in the sky, larger and larger. He left it at that size and found another one two houses over. He spread his fingers again and grew it even larger than the first.
He concentrated on the sky, willing the clouds away, willing the mask away. Streaks of clear blue appeared, then the moon, providing a reference point that showed him just how quickly the thin wisps of white were streaming by, just how quickly the world was collapsing on him. It wasn’t fair, this sudden feeling of control and chaos all happening at the same time.
“Ladybug sunrise!” His scream echoed in the void and then all was crushed beneath it.
In between worlds, Ethan struggled to find a grip on reality.
The phone rang out in the early morning darkness and Ethan stared for several seconds at his pillow, bewildered by the texture that he was only now becoming conscious of. There was a strange sensation in his head, a switching of gears that felt not only unsettling, but unequivocally wrong. He grabbed absently at the phone by his bed and held it to his ear.
“Mr. Kemp,” said Nolan, responding to Ethan’s groggy greeting. “I’m sorry to wake you. I thought you would be up by now.”
Ethan glanced at the clock. “It’s not yet half seven,” he muttered.
“But don’t you have class at eight?”
“Not today.” He sighed heavily, put his face back in the cool pillow.
“Well, again, I apologize. I just wanted to let you know that the execution of our friend Mr. Pembroke has been approved and will be carried out this evening during a special prime-time event.”
All of the comforting feelings of the dream faded away and Ethan sat up quickly, dangling his legs over the side of the bed.
“I tried to get you a seat in the audience, but my supervisor wouldn’t put it through.” He laughed callously. “He said they were already booked solid. Everyone wants to see this man hang.”
“No offense meant, but that’s rather sick.”
“I know,” said Nolan, a bit of indifference in his voice, “but what can you do?”
Ethan let a small pause build. “Thank you for the update. I’ll be sure to watch and applaud.”
“Yes.” Nolan’s voice was uncertain, as if he had forgotten what he called about. “Well, have a good day, Mr. Kemp.”
Scoffing, he replied, “I’m not being executed, how bad could it be?” He slammed the phone down on the base station and seethed. It was a dangerous move, purposely angering a Litagent, but he felt like he had to do something. If all that meant was to be rude on the phone, then so be it, he would do it with gusto.
A few minutes later, after the anger and adrenaline had started to fade, he began to experience the strange sensation of dream recall. What had previously been fragmented pieces of nothing were suddenly vivid images, sounds, and smells. He saw Donald and Nolan racing through the undergrowth. He saw the red suns rising around him. Then he remembered Deb, remembered the way she looked at him when he asked her to come inside. So innocent, so unsure.
Before he knew what was happening, Ethan was crying.
* * *
The execution, like everything else meant to frighten and control the populace, was being broadcast on all the major news channels, each one providing its own brand of sensationalized reporting. The hours preceding the ceremony were the worst. Adverts clung to the sides of the screen, reminding the general public about the standards laws and showing them exactly what would happen if they broke them. Donald’s face was ever-present in the corner, cold and resolute, as if he were trying to instill some kind of confidence in himself or others. Occasionally, the shot broke to an empty amphitheater where the hanging was to take place. Reporters on the scene were already interviewing the early arrivals, those fanatics that jockeyed for the best seat in the house.
Ethan passed the day in a melancholic haze that he tried to fight off by seeing to the cleaning of his apartment that he had put off the day before. He fixed up the living room and kitchen in the morning and then at lunch, managed to clear away the garbage from the dining nook so that he could sit down with a sandwich and a glass of water. It got tougher to concentrate on the cleaning towards the end of the day. The shadows changed and the light started coming in from the other side of the apartment. It was dimming as he cleaned, always dimming. As the darkness grew, so too did the dread rise inside him like a sickly bile, tasting foul and metallic at the back of his throat.
By six, he could no longer stomach the anticipation. He shut off the television, with its unsettling propaganda still echoing in his mind, grabbed his keys, and headed out. There was a strange feeling in the air as he walked down the steps to the first floor, listening to the insects chitter loudly. Once in the car with the engine idling, he asked himself what he was doing, gave himself one last chance to come to his senses. Hearing no response, he pulled out and followed the subtle curve to the front gate. From there, he took the main road back to the highway, hesitating briefly before choosing the southbound lanes. It was the quickest way to get downtown.
There was nothing that he could do, or at least, that’s what he kept trying to tell himself. Vain attempts at imagining possible rescue missions or some kind of intervention popped into his head and faded quickly. He recalled the feeling from the dream, used it to force random images into his head, but he couldn’t connect them with the problem at hand. In the rear-view mirror, he caught his eyes and suddenly realized what was so wrong about the world. They had taken away his dreams and by doing so, his imagination as well. Something inside of him was urging action and he couldn’t ignore it, even if that meant blindly following what he hoped was natural instinct.
Ethan parked eight blocks away from the Joel Porter Center for the Arts on the advice of one of the traffic cops standing behind a temporary barrier just off the interstate. With his twenty dollars paid up front, he fell into step with a group of younger men and women, students possibly. They were talking loudly about the coming hanging and arguing the merits of public executions. It took a few minutes of eavesdropping, but soon Ethan began to realize that they weren’t debating whether Donald was guilty or not. Actually, none of them seemed to have a problem with the death sentence. Instead, they worried about the effect on the general population, as in whether it did any good for everyone to see a man hang until he dies.
Feeling sick and uneasy, Ethan ducked into a pub to catch his breath and escape the mild hysteria overtaking the streets. He just wanted a moment to collect his thoughts, allow his brain some silence in which to process all of the absurd claims made by the walking crowd. It was quiet enough inside; the place was empty except for the proprietor and he was focused on the news feed on the television above the bar. He glanced back at Ethan momentarily but then spoke to him with his eyes back on the screen.
“Drink?” It was a half-hearted question, as he didn’t want to waste the time preparing anything and possibly miss something interesting.
“Glass of water, if you’ve got it,” said Ethan. He approached the bar and dropped several coins into the tip jar. They clinked loudly in the empty glass, attracting the bartender’s attention.
“Are you going to the show,” he asked, pulling a chilled glass from beneath the counter.
“Yes, though I don’t think I’ll be able to get in.”
The bartender nodded understandingly as he slid the ice water to Ethan. “Most people are gathering outside. They’re going to show it on the big screen.” He smiled. “You’re welcome to watch it here, of course.”
“Gathering outside,” asked Ethan. “You mean, protestors?”
“Ha!” He slapped the bar, generating ripples in the water. “You think there’s anyone out there that believes this guy didn’t do it? It’s a summary execution. The evidence had to be cock-sure.” He made a fist and waved it at Ethan.
“That’s what they say anyway. But there’s never a public trial, so we don’t know for sure, do we?”
“If you want to ask them,” said the bartender, raising an eyebrow, “be my guest. But as my mum always said, you never spank a baboon’s ass while he’s eating a banana.” He mimed strangulation with his hands. “In the heat of the moment, he’s liable to monkey-choke you.”
Ethan nodded thoughtfully and emptied his glass. “I guess I’d better go if I want to catch this thing.”
“Good luck finding your protestors.” He had a friendly laugh.
“Thanks,” said Ethan, but the bartender had already lost interest in his customer.
Outside, the sidewalks were growing more crowded and spilling out onto the streets. The police had cordoned off a small strip of a real estate in the middle of the road and cavalry and foot-mobiles patrolled back and forth, keeping an eye out for troublemakers. Ethan let himself be swept away by the flow and soon they had crossed enough streets for him to get his eyes on the Porter Center.
It was decorated for the occasion, with black and red streamers tied to the lampposts along the edge of the block. The building itself was draped in Litagent colors, vibrant gold and deathly black that covered up most of the drab exterior. Long, billowing sheets of red hung from the sides of the large projecter screen mounted over the main doors. It was already showing a live feed from inside, where city officials and prominent dignitaries were laughing and shaking hands. It looked more like a political convention than an execution. That same euphoric atmosphere was seeping outside as well. People were treating the plaza like some kind of swinging night spot.
At precisely seven, a hush fell over the crowd as the outdoor speakers began to crackle. The screen switched angles abruptly several times, highlighting the various important people who had donated money or time or firstborns, until finally cutting to a dead-on shot of the mayor standing at a podium. He lifted his hands, imploring the applauding crowd to be silent. But the sound was infectious and soon the entire plaza was giving him a standing ovation. Again, he beckoned for quiet and began his prepared speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in times likes these, it is important to recognize the hard work and dedication that is required to investigate, pursue, and capture men of Donald R. Pembroke’s ilk. He stands before you a condemned man, but none of this could have been possible without the tireless efforts of Precinct Twelve and Litagent Charles Nolan.”
The camera shifted again, showing a polished Nolan beaming with pride off to the left.
“I have asked Mr. Nolan to speak today, so that we may know more about his valiant work.”
Applause broke out in the amphitheater as the mayor shook hands with Nolan. Ethan noticed a tiny medal pinned to the Litagent’s chest, a reward for a job well done. After a quick repositioning of the microphone, Nolan cleared his throat.
“I want to make something perfectly clear,” said Nolan, his voice tight and official. “This…” He gestured to his right and on cue, a spotlight illuminated the floor around the condemned. The noose was already around Donald’s neck, hanging limp and powerless. “This is not an honorable death. Whatever you may think of law and government, there is no honor in suicide. This man is not a martyr. He is not dying for his beliefs. He is simply dying. And for what?” Nolan looked directly into the camera and Ethan felt the sickness that accompanied those penetrating eyes. “For nothing,” he continued. “For words.”
Sounds of agreement grumbled through the crowd.
“This man is a criminal. And he will die as one.” With a determined gait, he crossed the stage to where Donald was standing. An assistant hiding in the shadows passed him a microphone. “Donald R. Pembroke, you stand accused and convicted of standards violations and high treason. By the authority of this land, you are hereby sentenced to hang by the neck until death. If you have any last regrets, you may speak them now.”
If there was any fear in Donald, he was doing a good job of hiding it. He spoke calmly, as if discussing the weather in the hours before a storm. “My only regret is that I did not live long enough to see you stamped out by the angry boots of free men.” He looked to the camera. “I tell you all, plainly, that I have seen a world without tyranny. A world of freedoms, freedom of mind and freedom of speech. I know that you cannot imagine it now, but I have looked into your faces and seen the desperation. That the solution is so simple brings me great pain.” He paused, glanced quickly at Nolan. “Things cannot stay the same. Change will come to this country and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. One day, you will all decide to dream of a better life.”
Litagent Nolan dropped the microphone and hurried away, signaling to someone off-stage.
Donald raised his voice, screamed into the amphitheater, “And when you decide to dream, you will know what it means to be free! May God—”
His last words were lost to speculation as the floor dropped out from beneath him. There was a sickening crunch that echoed throughout the building and the plaza beyond. It was answered by an audible gasp from the crowd. Ethan put his hand to his mouth, tried to fight back the tears that were welling at the edges of his eyes. Unbelievably, a tentative clapping started around him, growing slowly into a monstrous roar of yelling and whooping.
Ethan fled, pushed rudely through the crowd and onto the empty streets. He walked quickly away, his mind swirling with the implications of Donald’s speech. The young man was right about one thing, dreaming could change the world. But it would never happen, not so long as the Litagents were in control. They would stifle every uprising, destroy everything that even resembled free thought. People could dream, yes, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Not in their lifetimes anyway. His last thought made him slow to a shuffle. That was the meaning of Donald’s sacrifice, not for himself, but for the future. He had dreamed long enough to imagine a better world.
In the safety of his car, he caught his breath, allowed the few tears to trickle down his cheeks. Adrenaline was flowing quickly through his veins, making his appendages throb and his heart pound in his chest. Luckily, there was little traffic to contend with while he made his way out of downtown and soon enough, he was cruising up the highway, trying to erase the image of Donald’s lifeless body from his memory, trying to forget the fervor of the crowd and their celebration of another man’s death. As he took his exit and turned onto the road that fed his apartment complex, his phone vibrated in his pocket.
“Hello,” he asked, unsure if the speakerphone was picking up his voice.
“Mr. Kemp, I finally reached you.” It was Litagent Nolan, sounding quite jubilant. In the background, the generic din of a party faded in and out. “I tried your home phone a couple times but there was no answer.”
“Yes,” said Ethan, “I was out.”
“So you missed the execution? It was marvelous.”
“No, I caught it.”
There was an exasperated sigh on the other end of the phone and when Nolan spoke again, his voice had changed. “I hate those last regrets. I don’t know why we still do that.”
“Seems only right, letting a man have his last words.”
“Yes, but it gets people thinking,” whined Nolan. “And if people think then they’ll want to write something bad and I’ll just have to keep executing them. I don’t understand why people continue to fight a losing battle.”
Chuckling derisively, Ethan replied, “I guess some of our human nature can’t be suppressed.”
“Maybe.” He let the silence drag out. “Well, I was calling for a reason, Mr. Kemp. We need a favor from you.”
“I don’t want to help with more investigations,” protested Ethan. “I don’t like being responsible for someone else’s death.”
“When the time comes, you will be asked to help in any investigations we see fit. And if you will not assist, then we will encourage you. But we can worry about that later. For now, I need you to author a paper.”
“What kind of paper?”
“Home Office has seen fit to dismiss the Barksdale-Higgins Formalism from the Listapproved standards. It will no longer be taught in any form or forum. You will write the main argument for us. With your prestige as a university professor, we should have no trouble selling this to the public.”
“And if I refuse,” asked Ethan. He pulled into his parking space and shut off the engine. In the relative quiet, he waited for a response.
Nolan clicked his tongue. “You know, I’m really beginning to tire of executing students. More and more, I’ve been asking myself, why kill the apprentice when you can have the master? So I ask you, Mr. Kemp, who was it that Mr. Pembroke studied under?”
“This is unfair.”
“Such is life,” replied Nolan. “I will send a courier and an officer by tomorrow morning. I leave it to you to decide which one makes the trip in vain.”
The line went dead and Ethan stared at the phone in his hand for several minutes. Finally, he cursed and threw it against the dashboard. It splintered and rained down on the passenger seat, a sight that he found strangely satisfying. He got out of the car and slammed the door, cursing Nolan’s name. Stalking up the stairs, he tried to imagine all the horrible things he could to do the Litagent if he ever got his hands on him. Visions of broken bones and flowing blood filled his mind with such visceral intensity that he had to stop and brace himself against his front door. Marveling at the power of his imagination, he unlocked the door and went straight to his office nook.
With a few quick clicks, he brought up an empty page on his terminal and put his fingers on the keys. The roles felt reversed. Now it was his turn to write an essay for someone else. He shook his head and wondered why Barksdale-Higgens would cause so much fear in the Litagents. It shouldn’t, he told himself. The Litagents weren’t scared of the method, but rather of Donald’s writing. Blaming his teachers and his style was just a way of stamping out all possible sources. But it was insanity to think that creativity could come from rote procedure, that it would just emerge, come into being spontaneously.
Ethan’s mouth dropped open and his eyes unfocused. For the longest time, he pondered the significance of the last couple days. Then, his mind began to extrapolate the future, of him working closely with the Litagenets, doing their bidding, abetting the murder of the innocents. It seemed such a horrible life.
“Yes,” he muttered to himself, the blinking cursor on the empty page, “but at least I’d live.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Ethan began to write.
* * *
The smell of death was still in the air, wafting out of downtown like an aromatic warning to all of those would-be authors whose fingers clacked over their keyboards on such an auspicious night. Jonathon Bailey drank it in as if it were something pleasant. Though it turned his stomach, he knew that it was a small pain to suffer compared to what had happened to Don. The thought of it made him cringe, the memory so fresh in his mind, so visceral in its intensity and agonizing in its clarity. Then there were the sounds, that unmistakable crunching that echoed in his ears above everything else, loud and clear over the hum of the engine and his footsteps as he climbed the stairs.
At the landing, he paused, recalled the sequence of events for the thousandth time. It started with a swift mechanical grating, metal moving over metal to undo the safety restraints, then a pop of the locks on the trapdoor, both sides zipping out of place simultaneously. Don’s body moved with unnatural speed, creating an audible whoosh as it descended, all blurry and indeterminate. In all that speed, Bailey experienced a moment, a split-second of belief that something would come along and save his friend. But then the finality came crashing down as Don’s movement was suddenly restricted, extending the spinal column to a terminal length. Then, nothing. No swaying, no movement, just death.
Bailey had no trouble imagining himself in that role and if things went the way he expected, he’d meet his future before the week was out. This realization gave him a moment of pause as he stood in the breezeway outside Ethan’s apartment. As his mind drifted, he stared at the overhead light, watched the way it flickered on and off with no pattern whatsoever. It was sending out mixed messages to the insects that flocked around it, trying too hard to be two things at once, to reach that self-actualized state where it could simultaneously embrace the light and the dark. But the rules were clear when it came to the natural order of things, to that system of control that couldn’t be defeated only fought against in wasteful futility until all were dead and no one believed anymore.
It was a choice, thought Bailey, a choice to be either a giver of light or a bringer of darkness. Be a dreamer or be a Litagent. They had the numbers, those that embraced control, so it was almost understandable why Don had chosen to trust this professor, this agent of the agents. At some point, risks had to be taken, men and women had to be put to sleep so that they could dream. Whether that sleep was temporary or permanent was up to them. For the man hiding behind the door, the man who had claimed to want to see the light only to shut his eyes when the moment came, the choice had already been made.
Something wet collected at the bottom of his nose and Bailey sniffled, annoyed to find that most of the drugs he had inhaled were dripping back out. He pinched it closed and breathed in, using the vacuum to draw the mist back into his lungs. It was going to take more than just determination and raw manpower to finish out the night’s tasks. After all, he didn’t know the situation inside the apartment. The professor was old but not decrepit. He could have a weapon, maybe a gun.
There were more clandestine ways of doing things, of course, ways that didn’t involve any personal risk on his part. Not only would a remote approach save him from bodily harm, but it would also leave him in the free and clear when it came time to assign blame. It was the smart way to do things, but Bailey didn’t want any of that. He wanted to see Ethan’s eyes in the last moments, wanted him to know who had delivered his death. And though his rational mind cried out in protest, the drugs created an effective barrier around, silencing his better judgment.
The door made a satisfying snap as he put his weight behind a waist-high kick, aimed a few inches to the right of the doorknob. Long splinters of wood caught on the deadbolt and then fell outward, creating a momentary obstacle. He pushed them aside and gave the door another kick that sent it slamming into an adjoining closet. The impact shook the room and Bailey used the momentary disorientation to dash inside, his recently purchased gun making its first appearance of the night since going into his pocket some two hours prior. It looked different then, gleaming in the low light of Ethan’s monitor, giving off an aura of menace and liberation all at once. Already, he could imagine what it would look like when it finally fired.
Ethan, surprised by the sudden intrusion, rose quickly out of his chair and turned to investigate the commotion. He stood bewildered for half a second before recognition gripped his mind and put context to the angered face he saw staring back at him. Protest bubbled up in his throat like a reflex, but all he could manage was a single nonsense syllable before an explosion at the back of Bailey’s gun sent a shard of metal hurtling through the space between them. It caught Ethan in the shoulder, the pain shattering all sensible reality, the impact sending his body hurtling backwards onto his desk. He let out a wail as his brain caught up with his nerve endings.
There was so much to imagine in that moment, how the pain could be so intense, how he could ever survive with the memory of this encounter festering in his mind like an eternal nightmare. It was good to imagine, he told himself. Doing so let him see the world differently, gave him hope that paths could be changed, death could be avoided, and that life could go on to see better days. For the first time, he understood the idea of hope, of dreams. Then, with a regret that pained him worse than his physical injuries, he watched his understanding come to an end. Another bullet buried itself in his chest. Followed by another, then another. The pain dulled, the world faded, and Ethan imagined that the best dream was still yet to come.
Bailey let out the breath he had been holding and moved closer to his victim. There was still a little light behind Ethan’s eyes, but it looked lost and lacking purpose, searching around wildly for something to latch on to. He pressed the gun to Ethan’s head, intent on delivering the final round that would leave no uncertainty to whether the man lived or died. The words that he had prepared in the car, the damning proclamation that he was so eager to deliver, suddenly stalled out, lost steam. There was something on the monitor, some document that the professor was working on. Only the words didn’t look very official and they way they snaked around the page made Bailey wonder about their content.
He wiped at the screen with the sleeve of his jacket, smearing the odd drops of blood into a thin pink coating. The text underneath was barely readable, but the words drew him in, moved him to sit in the chair with one hand still on Ethan’s chest to keep him from falling. Bailey suddenly felt less assured about the murderous feeling inside of him and that confusion made him angry. The professor was responsible for Don’s death. He had delivered him into the hands of the enemy. He wondered why was his revenge was so unsatisfying.
A tear broke loose from Bailey’s eyes as he scrolled on the page, each word adding to the growing understanding about Ethan’s motives. He looked at the professor, at those sad eyes that struggled to remain open. “You,” he said, but couldn’t bring himself to finish the question. He could no longer feel a heartbeat through the man’s chest. With gentle hands, he lowered Ethan to the ground, set him on the floor with care. The sniffles returned, but whether from the drugs or emotion, he couldn’t tell.
As he stood to leave, Bailey wondered why he was crying. Was it because of what Ethan had done, the betrayal and sacrifice of Don? Or did he cry for the words on the monitor, for that new but forever unfinished story about a girl with green eyes?