The Betrayal (NaNoWriMo #5)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: Every Subject’s Soul is His Own (Chapter 4)

“You,” I said.

Her name was Dottie Farrell and I had once loved her with all my heart. It was the kind of love where you made homemade chicken soup when she was sick, cooked three-course meals when she wasn’t, felt that you could share every skeleton kicking up dust in your closet, woke up every morning to ensure that the now luxurious whiff of coffee curled into every stray corner of our shared tome-lined apartment, held her in your arms when she had doubts about her career and America’s then waning legacy, negotiated detentes between pugnacious family members, and gave every bead of sweat and then some to hold onto a marvelous woman you only wanted to love deeper and grow old with.

When the Great Turnover had been more of a joke rather than a fearsome political reality, I had taken Dottie’s hand, sashayed the two of us into a cab as the racist driver yammered on about the Muslim ban (and we both gritted our then chattering progressive teeth), and escorted her up the steps near the edge of Fifth Avenue into the Met’s roomy, always reliable sanctuary. This had all gone down just six months before the new regime decided to incinerate this great museum (and all the art within it). But we could not know then that the jihad against art, which had then been little more than a deranged thought experiment from the far-right Republicans who were becoming the new normal, would actually be carried out. We could not possibly foresee that the idea of New York as the art capital of the world, with its free museum days and its eccentric tapestry trade, would so easily slip from our happy quotidian grasp. We sauntered past a bust of Alexander Pope and took the elevator to the rooftop garden, ignoring Adrián Villar Rojas’s ribald sculptures to take in the glorious green view of Central Park. It was a crisp day in early autumn, back in the days when we still had autumns and the earth hadn’t yet shifted to a stark two season year. The high winds lapped at Dottie’s blonde curls, pushing them into an intoxicating whirl, with the sun somehow brightening her eyes as if they were delicate porcelain in dire need of a fine light. Dottie and I had been together for five blissful years. There had been more ups than downs. Our friends said we were meant to be together as our hair turned gray and the crow’s feet crinkled against the corners of our lively eyes. The perfect couple that gave everybody hope as we all suffered through the hellish nonstop headlines.

We moved in together after nine months of dating, renting out a near palatial apartment in Jackson Heights. Two years later, we made the bold choice of wedding our books, somehow believing in the permanence of love as the world came closer to burning, selling off the remaining dupes to the now firebombed Strand and spending the loot on a lavish low-key dinner of pork rillettes and shimmering scallops and a bottle and a half of fine claret. A year passed and I took her to the same place again when it became more dangerous to leave the house and you needed fixers to get you from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The candles glowed and her olive cheeks deepened and the brisk beauty and sharp wit that I had known in the day and night of a more hopeful time somehow persuaded me, as all of us were then still struggling and then still polarized with disbelief, that love could indeed conquer all. I dropped to my knee and opened the case and asked her to marry me as a costly trio of violinists hired on short notice played Sara Bareilles’s “I Choose You.” Dottie said yes and we made love three times that night.

Six months later, as the court system was being dismantled and I was doing everything I could to preserve due process when the Ruler declared martial law, she had called the police to drag me out of our apartment. I escaped being cremated in the camps only because I had a few surprisingly loyal friends in high places that I knew from the weekend basketball game. People who still felt pity for a former civil liberties lawyer who was now down and out. People who somehow knew that even a cynical man like me might rise like a phoenix, if not to save the day then to at least preserve some small scrap of a world that had once prided itself on bonhomie and camaraderie.

Our phones were then being hooked up to the ratings matrix. We were being asked to turn over our driver’s licenses and burn our social security cards. It was impossible to walk through the streets of Brooklyn without smelling the burning corpses of people who had been shot by well-groomed thugs after daring to say no. The Great Turnover took us all by storm. We would no longer be able to vote, but we could make democratic choices against our neighbors. We no longer had the Fourth Estate, but we did have social networks, although anyone who dared to talk about politics quickly disappeared. As the world fell apart and the last of the resistance was marched to the camps, Dottie prioritized surviving over the enduring independent power of our love, as so many people did.

And now Dottie had somehow found me in a sector of the city that I might have recognized only four years before if the Ruler hadn’t razed the buildings and massacred entire neighborhoods. She was doing very well. She was looking very sharp. And the man in the peaked cap was malleable clay within her exacting fascist fingers. The limosuine’s door was open. I had thirty minutes to get to work. I had no other choice but to step inside the car. What other option did one have in New Amagaca?

Next: Bumper to Bumper (Chapter 6)

7874 / 50000 words. 16% done!

Every Subject’s Soul is His Own (NaNoWriMo #4)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: We’ll Always Have Brunch (Chapter 3)

Grace never told me where she worked or what she did or whether she liked her English muffin lightly toasted or extra crispy, but no one ever chased these harmless subjects anymore. “What do you do?” — once the darling question of small talk that tied the room together — had lost its meaning not long after the Virginia Massacre and the subsequent race riots and the purges and the Congressional assassinations had forced the government to roll into every city with humvees, assigning us our new vocational roles at gunpoint, the social contract extending into free-form fucking (even though most of us managed this quite well on our own before the Great Turnover). Grace and I agreed to meet again. She even reconsidered learning backgammon.

We exchanged numbers just before she clipped on her cubic zirconia earrings, smiling her finest Duchenne before the inspection camera to verify her singlehood, and we rated and reviewed each other for the quality assurance elite (“Five stars. Expert at reverse cowgirl. Attentive to cock. I’d do her again,” read my vulgar and now far too common lie). I left the singles housing unit wearing the previous day’s threads, wondering if my martinet manager would notice that my beige jacket was the same as yesterday’s. There was a good chance he wouldn’t. His paperwork never stopped.

I had taken a slight risk wearing beige to work. Beige wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it was mildly rebellious given that we had been asked to adorn our starved bodies with loud and bright hues to promote universal pleasure. Beige was my answer to the final movement in Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, not that any New Amagacan knew about classical music. Under the Ruler, you were lucky if you heard someone deliver an especially famous Shakespeare quote. The great secret of his autocratic success was to tire us out, insinuating that any work of art which stimulated the mind was akin to eating one’s cultural vegetables, so that, in our collective fatigue, we would never remember any significant artistic achievement from the time before. Culture had not been banned. The First Privilege had guaranteed us some remaining rights. But if you hoped to stop the population from caring or thinking about anything substantive, you had to create a climate in which the beauty of a baroque quatrain was as unappetizing during one’s spare time as a gratuitous backbreaking task.

I ambled along the sidewalk, which was being hosed down with exacting fury by two moribund men with hardscrabble cigarettes sticking from their lips like toxic lollipops. My phone revealed that they were both single and both twos and that neither had hooked up in quite some time (it was never easy for twos), which accounted for why they had been assigned to sweep the streets. One had to be careful with twos. They were more prone to crime, which could not be entirely eliminated by the Ruler even with his zero tolerance policy. But very often, a two’s infractions were never severe enough to warrant public execution. The expense of trucking away a two to a reeducation camp was too risky in a fragile economy. I suppose, if we had unlimited resources, the Ruler would have pushed harder. But it was also important to give every able mind a chance at redemption. Sometimes when you went out to brunch — and everyone went out to brunch, especially after the Ruler had reminded us — you would see a four obliging a two. (Giving spare credits to an under three was punishable by death under Protocol 47.) Then you would go to church and see the same four standing on the dais, without the two in sight, being extolled for being a good Amagacan. The next weekend, you would see the four with another two and the ritual would repeat and, very soon, the four would become a five, getting an item placed in the news feed and an assignment in charge of some vital municipal task. Meanwhile, the twos would disappear, sometimes becoming ones and leaving themselves vulnerable to a swifter daily seven selection. I knew that life as a two was difficult, but this was one of those problems that we never talked about. Status warfare was the cost of a greater New Amagaca, much as we had been blind about class warfare in the days before the Ruler. The last journalist who dared to write about this topic had been shot by the producer on the nightly news, with the bonanza ratings from the live stream rapidly superseding anything he had to say.

The two twos toodle-ooed me as I stared down at my malfunctioning GPS, hoping that the network would clear up so that I could find the swiftest subway to work. The street sweepers probably knew the city better than I did, but, when it came to consorting with citizens who were two stars beneath you, you really had to give rather than take. That was the way it worked. Ask only of others in your rank. If you dared to ask a favor of a two, you would have to hookup more frequently to sustain your four rating. Because talking with someone beneath you was considered an act of weakness, even when the propaganda dictated that everybody was worthy of a good pleasurable life under the Ruler.

Grace’s neighborhood was devoid of street signs and my GPS still didn’t work — even though I could make out the mile-high Burj Amagacana glistening in the distance. Which meant that I was very far away from work, unless I could find a subway that could take me there fast. I had thirty minutes to report to my auditor job or get downranked to a three. There had once been a time in which you could hail a shared vehicle, but such conveniences were now a month’s salary and largely belonged to the fives. Two years before, I had gone to a specialist to repair my status rating. And it had taken me a good year to climb to a four.

There was the option to use a sick day, but calling in sick would mean doctors taking me to a sybarite facility, where medical professionals would force me to hookup with six sick strangers a day until I got well. I would actually have to fuck these people — for there was no privacy for the infirm. The Ruler has bought into the anti-vaccination argument that had proven popular before the Great Turnover and believed only in hookups as the secret to good health. So you would have cancer patients locking lips with old citizens suffering from dementia. I often wondered if this had been a callous and crafty way of letting the sick die. This was the only healthcare we had. Bona-fide doctors were reserved for the fives. Still, a few popular pornographic stars had emerged from the sybarites. As the New Amagacan regime carried on, you learned that there was a kinky niche for everything.

There was also the matter of my caseload, which I really didn’t want to fall in the hands of Greta Zioto, an adjuster who was far more ruthless with my cases than I could ever be. Despite her very high deportation approval rate, she still found the time to plan fiestas for the office. It was almost as if the parties inspired Greta to be more heartless. The people who asked for our help always seemed to get in Greta’s way and she much preferred spending her afternoons going to the Consumer Center, justifying lavish budget allotments, and spending far too many government-issued credits on party supplies. Until Greta came along, our barebones office was a place where we all hung down our heads and did the best we could to save lives. But Greta, who was well connected with the fives, made parties happen twice a week. The abrogation unit, which had repealed many ones and twos and gave them a second chance, soon spent more of its time putting on a blindfold, growing cheerier as they swatted around at a swinging piñata, leaving Greta to reassign dozens of cases to the death camps. But some of us still took our duties quite seriously.

So I had to get to work. There was more on the line here than an unwanted fuckfest. If I got to work at a timely hour, there was a good chance that I could repeal a few cases and stop at least some of them from being selected for the daily seven. This was what I did twelve hours each day and why I couldn’t sleep. I ended my day at the cafe across from the daily seven because I needed to be reminded why I slept only four hours a night and how increasingly rare it was for anyone to weep.

“Mister Schuld?”

“That’s me.”

The voice came from a smiling man wearing a peaked cap.

“Did you go straying from your sector again?”

The man elbowed me on the side and winked.

“Yeah, you might say that.”

“Well, we don’t want you to be late for work! Do we?”

“Uh, I can’t pay for this.”

“It’s all taken care of, Mister Schuld. Don’t you worry!”

“By whom?”

“Me,” said a very familiar voice that I had not heard since the rough and tumble days rebuilding my status history. “Hello, Alex.”

Next: The Betrayal (Chapter 5)

6874 / 50000 words. 14% done!

We’ll Always Have Brunch (NaNoWriMo #3)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: A Pot of Tea (Chapter 2)

If you opened your eyes early enough, just before the government blinded you with the glum flares of glammy displays roasting all walls to a patriotic crisp and the cheap sequenced trumpets picked your hopeful pockets with flat notes pricking deep into your weary ears like a blind acupuncturist who can’t find your back and the rah rah rahs presaging the stertorous Ruler’s calls for fervor and greatness and unity, you could sometimes hear the sounds of what the world was like before. The Ruler had besmirched nearly every human virtue, but he had no control over the birds cooing soothing threnodies just as the sun cracked the dark of a dim unpromising billet. He could not halt the white spill that lingered around for a small buoyant moment while all were asleep. The Ruler could not prevent the cats and dogs from curling into our beds and staring lovingly at us, even after we had devolved into violent sadistic obedients. The animals, of course, were blind to our indiscretions. But the dogs still fetched our papers (there was only one now) and listened to our sob stories with a wet panting tongue. The cats still sauntered around our quarters with an upward vee curling against the last fleshy dregs of our authentic intimacy. If you woke up early enough, you were reminded of the way that the earth could always trump any great man with its joy and its grandeur and its possibility. Sure, we could erect all the brutalist buildings and crass cathedrals and despotic domes we wanted, but we too would eventually be dust with the dinosaurs. Maybe we belonged in the wilderness too, running naked and feral with all other creatures, screaming primal hymns and ripping our rotting teeth into any meat that remained. But, for a brief moment, in that fleeting crepuscular period between dreams and the bitter real, you could remember that you were alive. We had slipped so swiftly from human grace, but I wondered if the reason that I still wept over the beaten boy had something to do with my knack for waking up early.

“Alex,” cooed Grace. “What time is it?”

“Before the Ruler’s stir.”

“But you have stirred me. Go back to sleep.”

“No. I want to enjoy this. You should too. It’s the magic hour. The time when we’re allowed to feel human.”

She loosened a quiet yawn.

“How many hours do you sleep?”

“Four hours each night.”

“That’s not enough.”

“I am often fatigued. But if I didn’t have the morning, I really couldn’t deal.”

She stretched her left arm and her soft hand briefly skirted against my bare shoulder. I glanced at her scar again and wished silently for the seventh time that I could track down the beast who made that.

“What have they assigned you to do?”

“I’m an auditor.”


“A small time abrogator.”

She emerged from the duvet, rising up from bed and letting it spill to her legs. She had not covered herself. I looked away from her breasts.

“You could report me.”

“I won’t.”

“Look at me, Alexander Schuld.”

It was so easy for all of us to play these roles. But I wouldn’t.

“I can’t and I won’t. And I don’t report people. I don’t work in that department.”

“Why do you loiter around the cafe near the daily seven? A sense of guilt?”

“I just enjoy playing backgammon, that’s all.”


“One of humanity’s oldest games. I could teach you how to play sometime. It goes as far back as 3,000 B.C.”

“I don’t play games.”

“Aren’t our lives games now?”

But before Grace could tell me more, the billet erupted in the wretched daily warble guaranteed to stir even the deepest sleeper, followed by the hiss of static, and the Ruler’s triumphant music polluting every square inch of space.

“We’ll have to pick this up later.”

The Ruler’s detestable presence was projected everywhere. Even if you closed his eyes, you would still see his fat face and his seedy corpulent presence. In the early days, the Ruler would appear on camera, speaking directly to the people much in the manner that the Presidents used to address the American people whenever the nation declared war for the most trifling and inconsequential reason. But these days, the Ruler was more of a bargain basement avatar: a large frozen head for the citizens to admire as it slowly rotated over New Age music like some poorly rendered polygon on an old screen saver.


The words were accompanied by what sounded like canned applause, although we could hear our neighbors cheering the speech through the thin walls.

“God, I hate brunch.”

“We should at least have breakfast.”


The Ruler’s words trailed off at this point. He was never very good at endings.

“Come on,” said Grace, “you have to go to work.”

“And so do you.”

5296 / 50000 words. 11% done!

Next: Every Subject’s Soul is His Own (Chapter 4)

A Pot of Tea (NaNoWriMo #2)

[Table of Contents]
Previously: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1).

Her name was Grace, but she told me later that she was far from amazing and never attended church and showed me that she was not that graceful, starting with the way she wore her nubbed olive sweater inside out and carrying on lately with her clumsy gait, in which one foot seemed to be slightly more infirm than the other as she dragged her heels through the streets with a slight hobble, with the anemic pace now much louder on her billet’s hardwood floors, almost as if she had an undiagnosed case of Meniere’s, which seemed plausible given how loud the world had become, but I liked this about her, along with the fact that she didn’t wear makeup and she did not appear to give two fucks about keeping up appearances in the horrorshow real now known as New Amagaca.

She had a bold look in a city in which there was a significant gender imbalance favoring men. Most female singles latched onto the nearest gormless potbelly and, if they couldn’t land that, they would swipe their cards in gauche boutiques for pointless merch and hope that they wouldn’t be tagged and blipped by a bored and vengeful TSA man looking to blow up a human head when not molesting passengers who had the credits and the brazen audacity to travel in this hard new world. Her brown hair swooped in a sloppy beehive with stray graying strands dangling past her hanging earlobes, bedecked with the mandatory cubic zirconia earrings that all single women now had to don. Her crisp blue eyes had not entirely hardened, but these orbs were well on their way into turning cold and sociopathic like everyone else. Maybe she had collided into me because the universe that the Ruler could not kill still favored those who longed to carry on some compassionate legacy of what had once been lived before, before the American dream, or the unsustainable myth that passed for it, had been extinguished by the Ruler in favor of the new order.

She was five years younger than me, an age gap that neatly aligned with the government’s exacting seventy-two page pamphlet on how and who to copulate with. But the disparity in years had merely been a coincidence, much as a series of unlikely events had caused a bunch of white supremacist yahoos to firebomb the White House, followed by the Virginia Massacre that had killed ten thousand and the insurgency that had butchered countless more and the new front erecting tall lumbering spires and sinister checkpoints on every block in every city and the division of the populace by political taxonomy, some of us pushed into camps and others executed and still others dreading the day that they would surely be selected by the daily seven algorithm. Grace and I held hands only because we knew we’d be arrested by the pleasure police if we didn’t. We held each other from a more sincere place of common empathy because we instinctively felt that we were the only two souls who seemed to care about that poor orphaned boy beaten to a pulp by the bloodthirsty crowd.

As I wiped her dry thin lips of vomit with my soiled polka dot handkerchief, and as the bright Amagacan floodlights shot hard pink and lavender into the sky, I told Grace that I was a desert father and asked if she knew what that meant and she said that she did and she smiled a rare smile in this hellscape we had been complicit in allowing to happen and now had little choice but to live through and carry on, even though carrying on was akin to binging through the worst Netflix sitcom imaginable. Many sitcoms had been put into production under the Ruler (he believed that television was the cornerstone of Amagacan life), given sixty episode runs for the year instead of the former twenty-six so that singles had plenty of content to watch to get down with the chilling business to produce a steady stream of innocent babies who would grow up in this hellish new normal, most infants named after the Ruler and various sitcom characters because the government had done everything it could to destroy our collective imagination.

“Would you like some tea?” she said.

“Tea is hard to come by these days.”

“I have good Indian tea. It’s impossible to get tea from China. But I do have sugar and even milk smuggled from a Kansas dairy farm hording some of the remaining cattle. Please don’t report me.”

“I won’t.”

“Builder’s tea.”

“Isn’t that a tribute to the nightmare across the ocean?”

“It’s worse over there than here. Maybe this is the coldest spot in hell. Across the Pond, we used to say.”

“Not that either of us could visit there. You’d use your rations on me? You barely know me.”

“You’re not like the other singles. If you wanted to Netflix and chill, you would have made your move by now.”

“And if you wanted that, you would have turned on the stream and let the algorithm decide what sitcom we needed to watch so that we could get in the mood. So that makes two of us who still believe in something else.”

“I don’t want to love you.”

“I know.”

“I don’t know if I believe in love anymore.”

“Maybe all the hookups have killed the instinct.”

“I have some friends who have found love.”

“Yeah, but can you really love anyone anymore? When everyone is so cruel?”

“Not everyone. We should be careful.”

“You’re right.”

The two of us stripped down to our underwear just in case the pleasure police decided to conduct a raid on this section. The thin walls could not disguise the mechanical grunts and woeful moans of other singles in other billets memorializing the binge of a sitcom season, ensuring that their personal ratings would remain somewhere between four and five stars. In those days, you could still rate your neighbors. The government was initially more understanding of singles who could not find a hookup every night. The policy had been very bold and very new and everyone was still working out how and how often to fuck in order to placate the Ruler. Sometimes, Denise and I pretended to copulate after a game of backgammon just to nab a few peripheral ratings from neighbors, who often planted their ears to walls if they could not hookup that night. This provided more documentation that we could provide to the police and the magistrates if we were ever caught living in a friends without benefits manner. In the early days, two of my closest friends had been rounded up for being friends without fucking. And I knew that I was living dangerously in actually getting to know another single of the opposite gender, respecting her in the ancient three date way or the mature manner in which you cultivated a friendship with someone you didn’t hit it off with or, more daringly (and more frequently in my case), never viewed her as a sexual object at all but as a dependable compadre.

“What’s that scar?” I asked, pointing to the ruddy encrusted trail on her left shoulder.

“A previous hookup. He got a little wild with a knife.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’ve had worse. But the others didn’t leave permanent marks.”

The kettle hissed with a blissful whistle and she poured the water and the milk and the sugar into two mugs, with the dangling string from the teabags leaving a cracked matted line against the porcelain. She placed the two mugs on the white government-issue plastic table common to all single billets.

“This is nice,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Thank you for not asking me to Netflix and chill.”

“Do you remember when they singled out men who had abused women? That had been in the last days. Film producers, famous actors.”

“But not politicians. Not the President.”


“We directed our energies towards entertainment rather than politics. Some men in power suffered, but the real men in power triumphed and helped make this happen.”

“And we lost that last election.”

“Are you okay talking about this?”

“Honestly, after what I saw today.”

“It now happens every day.”

“That doesn’t mean it disgusts me any less.”

“Do you want to live?”

“There are some days that I don’t.”

“Do you think it will pass?”

“I don’t know. But humankind survived the Middle Ages. So I suppose anything is possible.”

“It’s nice talking like this. Reminds me of the old times.”

“Shouldn’t we get down to business?”

“I suppose so. Would you like to pretend or be real?”

“I’d rather pretend because you seem very nice.”

We knew when our neighbors pretended to fuck and we were careful to rate them even when we didn’t like them or their performances were weak. We needed to rate our conquests to help the daily seven algorithm because you would get docked one star if you failed to rate a hookup within twenty-four hours. And it was important to hookup on a somewhat regular basis to ensure that you had a somewhat regular rating. You could usually get by on one hookup every two weeks. That would keep you hovering around 3.5, a fairly safe rating that would usually keep you from not being selected for the daily seven, but this assumed that your partner wasn’t sour or vengeful and was understanding with you even if neither of you had any physical chemistry together. This listlessness in matters of the flesh was happening more and more these days as fucking became more regular and soulless and people couldn’t find pleasure even when they were told about crops and rope and handcuffs and blindfolds. We were sent daily seduction tips, often featuring interactive maps outlining directions to the clitoris with sultry hip-hop music playing beneath the alluring graphics, to ensure that all would be satisfied in New Amagaca. Some citizens had been profiled in the news feeds as studs and sluts. A small number had become pornographic stars, singled out for their athletic contributions that the tastemakers had liked and favorited on the social networks. This was one way you could survive under the new regime if you didn’t want to work the assigned labor. YouTube now only enabled monetization for singles who were willing to confess to the world how they were fucking. So the system was rigged to favor the prolific and more adventurous hookup practitioners. But you couldn’t live like this forever. Because as you grew older and your looks faded, your life could be derailed and your rating might falter if you didn’t find a partner and go to city hall and get the stamp from the alderman and the notary formally memorializing how you had switched from single to married status, although this was by no means guaranteed and it was useful to make sure that your partner was pregnant. If you were not heteronormative, which was the orientation that the Ruler tended to publicize, you could be one of those singles playing the hookup game well into your forties and fifties, although that was more difficult. If you were not heternormative, you could, in theory, adopt one of the many children who had been left by a daily seven single parent. But the government only granted you non-heternormative marriage if you were willing to take in a minimum of six orphans. And it was hard enough to survive with the average 2.2 children. Because of this, the algorithm often selected orphans for the daily seven. Because the algorithm knew best and could often detect if an orphaned child had no prospects, not even among the non-heteronormative types. And you could not talk about any of this because it happened swiftly and it was all deleted from the search engine results even quicker and you had only your fallible memory to rely upon.

“What’s your name again?” asked Grace.


“Alex, let’s pretend.”

“Okay. We should probably move to your bed.”

“I chose a bedroom without any windows.”

“Smart. I know drones that fly outside windows to corroborate hookups.”

And the two of us scampered underneath the white duvet. It was getting cold and I saw goosebumps sprout on Grace’s bare arms and I made sure she was covered. And we lay next to each other, snickering a little bit to ourselves, and we began to howl and fake our orgasms. We had taken the batteries outside of our phones and placed them in the freezer so that the government would not capture any AV, but, when we turned our phones back on after our performance, we heard the blips of favorable five star approvals from our neighbors, who had rated us strictly on our sounds. And the two of us laughed and high-fived over our convincing performance and we soon fell fast asleep, hoping to survive another wretched tomorrow. And I began to like Grace a little more.

4245 / 50000 words. 8% done!

Next: We’ll Always Have Brunch (Chapter 3)

The Daily Seven (NaNoWriMo #1)

[Table of Contents]

They pushed seven people into the death house just as they always did at seven o’clock. We were accustomed to the screams by now. Sometimes the cries for clemency and the plaintive declarations that life was unfair comforted you when you played backgammon.

I wasn’t playing backgammon that Thursday evening. My partner Denise said that she had a last minute appointment, which was perfectly legal if you had the supportive documentation, although some people were now executed for what had once been called ghosting. I think she preferred to play backgammon in our assigned quarters because she didn’t want to deal with the smell of charred flesh burrowing into her nose as she slid smooth checkers across white and tan diamonds. I hadn’t seen Denise in weeks, but she did text me the mandatory pictures of herself in languorous poses to avoid any excess taxes. We were in the clear. And I knew that I would play backgammon with her again sometime very soon.

“Is everybody having a good time?” boomed the alderman through the purple megaphone across the street, which was now thickening with strangers waving pitchforks. His words barraged us through the cafe’s open windows, causing a man who had stayed very quiet during the last few hours to rise from his laptop, thrust his long gangly arm in the air in appropriate salute to the Ruler, and shout, “Fuck yeah! Let the heathens die!” The Ruler had always insisted on fun and happy colors and this cafe was no exception: the browns of the table had been reinforced by garish blues and greens that never quite sailed out of your peripheral vision. But the government-mandated decor couldn’t quite extinguish the bleakness of the ceremony. Still, the death house cheerleaders were, at the time the alderman announced these words, forming themselves into a near perfect human pyramid, with the crowd giving them space to perform their celebratory ablutions.

The alderman was a short and pudgy man with a lengthy beard and a harsh nasal voice. He stood just above the rickety parapet across the street, where you could see the daily seven being trotted out high above us for fierce jeers and ideal Instagram angles. Nobody liked the alderman. He was one of the first who turned with the new order, when there was still a climate to theoretically resist. But, of course, you couldn’t say this. You couldn’t say much anymore. They monitored everything, but they didn’t need to. Enough people had become loyal minions to the Ruler. Every social network served as its own built-in informer force. And if the rats didn’t call you out for offending anyone, there was a good chance that the algorithm would spot you and push you near the top of the list and you might be one of the daily seven drawn in your city that day. So it was best to keep your head down and attempt normalcy.

I drained the last of my café au lait, heard the bold deafening roar of fire and electricity being initiated for the executions, and watched the seven people shivering high on the platform above us. There were three women, two men, and two small children who couldn’t be more than twelve. In the earlier days of the death houses, the daily seven’s charges and transgressions against society would be announced along with the names. But when the last of the protesters caviled against this (and were swiftly put to death), this part of the ceremony was abandoned. This had shortened the ceremony to about twenty minutes, which really needed to be done. The longer the ceremony carried out, the more likely people were to ask questions about it. And we no longer lived in a world in which questions were part of contemporary life. The brute force of blunt declarations, whether true or false, carried us through the day.

“These are the criminals who stand against a better tomorrow,” cried the alderman. His words were accompanied by a lush and loud orchestra stationed near the death pit, but the notes they poured into the open air were drowned out by the flickers of orange and blue raging against the shelled out colonial style ruins of the death house, which stood tall and proud and obscene with the maws of its hollowed out mansards waiting to taste the fresh new seven.

The daily seven protocol had been initiated as a punitive measure in the two hundred most populous cities captured by the Amagaca Front and the government was doing its best to address the declining population count by banning contraception and forcing many of the remaining singles to hook up by force if they wouldn’t Netflix and chill by choice. Denise and I preferred to talk and play backgammon, which we did half-naked. That way, if the pleasure police ever knocked on your door, you could shift to a lecherous snog to avoid arrest.

I wasn’t especially macabre in temperament, certainly no more than anybody else, but I had always been a man of routine. Routine helped me to cope, even as I had watched my younger brother, who had been a journalist before flattery measures kicked in, get hauled away by the police and omitted from the search engine results. The last three years had been difficult for everyone and you hoped that they never called you when they rounded up the daily seven, which was always announced in a bright cheerful tone, along with the sports scores and the winning lotto numbers, on the displays that nobody could ever turn off.

I left the cafe with my battered blue rucksack and saddled up with the serried spectators craning their necks near the velvet rope, who were rubbing their hands with glee as the death house bellowed, anxiously awaiting the seven new criminals. The death house’s cacophony was often so loud that one required earplugs, which were sold by the enterprising vendors who had erected tables just outside the death house. Free trade, after all, was encouraged in any form by the Ruler. The vendors also sold T-shirts, pierogies, miniature models of the death house (a fun birthday gift for the kids), and large photos of the Ruler that could be nailed up on any blank wall that had somehow escaped the Ruler’s now ubiquitous mug.

The daily seven ritual, which had been thrust and instituted upon us so quickly that there seemed little hope of ever overturning it, was undeniably hypnotic and entertaining. It emerged, like much of the Ruler’s plans, from a crazed and instinctive sense of showmanship. It was grand mortal theatre ignited by one man’s narcissism, which quickly became addictive to everyone. The daily seven always drew a large audience. Some who worked the night shift requested time off work to attend the ceremonies. Because the daily seven was never quite the same if you watched it on your phone. It had to experienced live, when at all possible. All wondered if they might recognize one of the daily seven who had been declared evil. And you would often hear them muttering their theories about those rounded up to die:

Oh, I always had a bad feeling about him.
She never smiled at the company picnic. It was a potluck and she showed up with a bag of chips that she poured into a bowl. She had some nerve! The rest of us went to so much effort!
He kept to himself too much.
She attempted suicide. I can’t think of a more pathetic plea for attention. She wasn’t really suffering. It was all part of her plan.
I saw her looking at porn on her phone. This when her baby was fast asleep!

Etcetera, etcetera.

People were sometimes summoned if you fed a name to human resources, which had been unified across all companies and centralized by government edict. In the earlier days, you might have had a face-to-face meeting to clear up a dispute. But when the death house became a mainstay of life under the Ruler, the meetings stopped and the algorithm had a larger pool of names to draw on. The general dread of being accused and picked was why so many people no longer talked to each other aside from the unavoidable shorthand of ordering a coffee or asking a salesman for the price of a new suit. You couldn’t even haggle anymore, for free trade always favored the seller. If you were defrauded by a seller, there was no longer any recourse to sue. You still had the option buy nothing, although this was often risky, especially during the holidays. Any citizen who was not accumulating items at a reasonable regular rate to support the economy could be sent to the consumer camps, where you would either be reeducated or put to death, as determined by the state. My sister, once a prominent freegan who had been profiled in a few magazines, had been sent to a consumer camp and the walls of her billet had become a tapestry for boy band memorabilia. She now swiped her card liberally and she was never the same.

Every so often, you’d see one of the seven picks attempt an escape. And that’s when some underpaid yutz in an airport would press a button. Some people simply had no knowledge that their names had been called for the daily seven and they would often fail to show up. About six months before, I had been sitting in an auditorium, trying my best not to nod off during a work-related PowerPoint presentation delivered by a humorless woman in a gabardine blazer. Just as she advanced to her penultimate slide, coming to the peroration of her dreadful speech, we were all surprised when her head exploded just as she was set to sell us on how to raise our dynamic potential. Apparently, her words in favor of the Ruler were not enough to escape being selected by the daily seven algorithm.

None of us could entirely remember what the world had been like before, but there had been the faint sense that it was better, even though the government had destroyed all evidence of what we once documented in droves. We would often talk in Faraday rooms, but I did know of a few citizens who had been selected for the daily seven despite our precautions. The finder’s fee that came if you reported someone to the hotline and the name came up when they selected the daily seven was simply too lucrative for some people to pass up.

We were coming to the big finish of the daily seven ceremony. The orchestra became louder as the daily seven started to whimper. It was important to make sure that we could never hear their suffering, but of course you could always could. I watched one of the two kids piss his pants. Then the other kid panicked and cried and leaped off the platform without warning. I quietly hoped that he might accidentally fall into the death house. Because that was better than the alternative. But he wasn’t so lucky. He was caught by the crowd and they all clawed into him, stabbing their pitchforks into him like a turkey ready to be carved up at Thanksgiving. If the spectators didn’t have implements, they kicked into this frightened kid in the areas of his body that their augmented reality headwear had designated “Please direct physical violence without impediments here to avoid injury.” The kid’s life swiftly left him and he became nothing more than a bloody and unidentifiable pulp. The crowd roared.

“Well, that’s one for the crowd and six for the house!” cried the alderman.

The remaining daily six ambled silently along the platform, but the look in their eyes, which you could still see fifty feet below, told us that they were ready to leave this mad world, a world that we still had to live in. They fell one by one into the death house. You could hear their screams from half a block away.

I looked for one of the designated regurgitation areas and threw up. I ended up meeting a woman there who was similarly repulsed by the ceremony. We held each other and agreed to go to her billet once we heard the rosy sirens of the pleasure police looking for loners to round up.

Next: A Pot of Tea (Chapter 2)

2071 / 50000 words. 4% done!