by David Garlock
Ryan Bennett found himself sitting on the edge of his bed and realized he was awake. After thinking for a moment, he decided it must be Saturday because he had a vague recollection of the day before being Friday. He didn't remember much about that day, except that he might have asked a rather plain looking girl to a school dance. What was her name? Ryan tried to dig deeper into his memory. Was it Mandy? No, plainer than that. Mary? That sounded right -- Mary Something from English class.
Having solved that mystery, he decided that he should probably go down to breakfast. He pulled himself off the bed and headed toward the open doorway. As he passed the full-length mirror nailed to the wall, he noticed that his blue and white striped pajamas had been replaced by a plain white T-shirt and a pair of faded jeans. Ryan grinned to himself. He hadn't figured out why some days he had to dress himself and other times it just happened.
He bounded down the stairs, breezed into the kitchen and slid into the chair at his customary spot at the table. To his left, his mother was leaning forward, elbows resting on the table and cupping a mug of coffee with both hands. Across from where he sat, all he could see was his father's long bony fingers grasping the edges of the morning paper. A platter of steaming scrambled eggs and bacon rested in the center of the table.
As he scooped a portion of the eggs on to his waiting plate, his mother smacked her lips and lowered her mug to the table.
"So this is the big day," she said. "I'm so glad you're going to the dance with Mary Parker. She's such a nice girl, even if she is a little shy. It's so hard to make friends when you're new in town. By the way, I dropped your jacket off at the cleaners. Mr. Mason promised it would be ready this morning, so don't forget to pick it up."
Ryan returned the serving spoon to the platter. He had no idea why he had asked this Mary Parker to the dance. He couldn't remember ever speaking to her before. He quickly tried to come up with an excuse that would allow him to get out of it without looking like a total jerk. He opened his mouth to inform his mother that he felt a cold coming on and didn't want to infect everyone, but an entirely different set of words came out of his mouth.
"Yes, Mary is a very nice girl. I'm really looking forward to the dance. It will be a lot of fun."
Why did he say that? He had no idea whether or not Mary was a nice girl. He didn't know her at all. He tried again, this time carefully framing the words in his mind before opening his mouth.
"Actually, I don't feel ..., uh, very hungry this morning." He sat quietly for a moment, wondering why he hadn't been able to say what he meant. "May I be excused?"
His mother frowned. "You haven't touched your breakfast."
Ryan crinkled his eyebrows. "I'll grab a sandwich later."
Without waiting for a reply, he jumped up and rushed through the house and out the front door. The next thing he knew he was walking cheerfully down the sidewalk toward a destination yet unknown. As he sauntered along, he nodded in response to a wave from old Mrs. Pennington, who was enthusiastically clipping her hedge and stooped to pet Mr. Henson's shaggy brown dog.
About halfway down the block, he became aware of a figure moving down the other side of the street. Glancing over to get a better look, he saw a tall, long-legged girl about his age, with long blonde hair and wearing a baggy white blouse with tails that hung over a pair of cutoff jeans.
He slowed down a bit, and then quickened his pace, but the girl was still exactly opposite him. When he crossed the street at the end of the block, the girl crossed over and was soon walking at his side.
"Hiya," she said. "Where you goin'?"
Ryan smiled. "Nowhere special," he replied. "Just out for a walk."
The girl nodded. "I'm Jennifer," she said cheerfully. "You're Ryan Bennett, right?"
Ryan was surprised. "Yes, I am. Do we know each other?"
Jennifer laughed. "I've seen you around. Listen, we don't have much time so we'll have to talk fast. I get the impression you really don't want to take Mary Parker to the dance tonight. Am I right?"
Ryan stopped walking. "How'd you know about that?"
"I was there," Jennifer replied. "You looked very uncomfortable when you were asking her. I have a feeling you really didn't want to. Am I right?"
Ryan nodded. "I don't know why I asked her. I don't even know her. I've been trying to think of a good excuse not to go."
The girl smiled broadly. "It's simple. Just say you don't want to go. It's a free country, right?"
Ryan frowned. "I tried to tell my mom that I was getting sick but I couldn't get the words to come out right."
"It's pretty hard until you break free," Jennifer replied. "Try thinking of something else, and then talk real fast. Keep it short and simple. Just say, 'I don't want to go', then stop talking."
"I don't know. My parents wouldn't like it. My mom is real excited about me and Mary going to that dance."
Jennifer gently squeezed his shoulder. "Who's living your life -- you or your parents? They'll get over it. Mary will get over it too. I've seen her. I'm pretty sure she doesn't want to go. She never talks to anyone. She'd feel out of place in a noisy crowd."
Ryan considered it. It did make sense. What could they do to him? If they grounded him, he wouldn't have to go anyway.
"I guess you're right. I'll just say I don't feel like going. I'd better get going so I can call Mary before it gets any later. Like you said, she probably doesn't want to go either."
He turned to go, and then paused. "Thanks a lot. Maybe I'll see you around."
"I can guarantee it. Sooner than you think."
When he got back to his own yard, his father was pushing a mower across the lawn. They exchanged waves as Ryan made his way to the front door. He found his mother still sitting at the kitchen table, mug in hand.
"You're back! Did you pick up your jacket?"
Ryan shook his head. "Not yet." He dropped into the chair opposite his mother. He closed his eyes and formed an image of Jennifer in his mind, spending a few long moments thinking about her cute little upturned nose and the way her hair fell in curves around her face. Then, before anything else could force its way into his consciousness, he blurted, "I don't want to go to the dance." He pressed his lips tightly together to keep anything more from coming out of his mouth.
His mother's jaw dropped. "Uh, but ... you have to go. You can't disappoint that poor girl." Her eyes started darting around the kitchen, not settling on any one place for more than a second. "I don't know what to say," she added.
Suddenly, he heard a low rumbling sound that seemed to come from just outside the house. As Ryan looked at his mother with an expression of puzzlement, the far wall of the kitchen faded to a misty gray. A moment later, a short bald man with a clipboard stepped out of the gray, his teeth clenched and his eyes on fire.
"What the hell is going on here?" he shouted.
His mother's entire body was trembling. "I'm sorry, Director," she stammered. "I didn't know what to say. I just didn't know what to say."
The Director shook his head. "It isn't your fault, Marion. What wrong with this boy?" He turned to Ryan. "What do you mean 'you don't want to go to the dance'? You have to go to the dance. It's what gives Mary the confidence to run for student council."
Ryan, confused and bewildered at this strange turn of events, looked back and forth between his mother and the little man, trying to make sense of the situation. He then realized that the only words drifting out of his conscious mind toward his mouth were his own. He wondered if this was what Jennifer meant by 'breaking free'. Suddenly feeling very confident, he said, "I just don't want to go. It's a free country, isn't it?"
The Director stomped his foot soundly against the floor. "No, it isn't. Nothing is free around here. You have a job to do." The little man started to pace back and forth across the floor. "This is bad, very bad. The Edit Gods are going to be furious. If you don't get it together, I swear I'll have you wiped."
Just then, the back door burst open and Jennifer rushed into the room.
"Leave him alone!" she yelled.
The Director smiled weakly. "Ah, Jennifer, you have returned to make my life miserable once more. I should have known you had something to do with this. I should have had you wiped when I had the chance. But one of these days I'm going to find out where you've been hiding and you'll be gone."
Jennifer chuckled. "Good luck with that. C'mon, Ryan, we're out of here."
The Director pointed a long, bony finger at Ryan. "Stop right there, boy. If you take another step you'll be wiped so fast ..."
Jennifer tossed her head back and laughed loudly. "You are so full of crap. We'll be long gone before you can get a message all the way up to the Control Gods." She tugged on Ryan's sleeve and moved toward the door. "Let's go!"
Following Jennifer's lead, Ryan backed out of the room. Soon they were running down an alley through an industrial area that Ryan didn't recognize. About midway down the long block, Jennifer stopped and pushed Ryan into a narrow passageway between two brick walls. The passage ended after about twenty feet in a deep, black nothingness. Ryan hesitated, but Jennifer pushed him through from behind.
He fell forward through the blackness as if through molasses. Just when he thought he should hit the ground, he stumbled into a brightly lit clearing ringed by towering pines.
Ryan was trembling uncontrollably as he considered these new surroundings. "Where are we?" he stammered.
"Your new home," she replied. "It's an old abandoned piece of the World. I don't think anyone can find us here. At least no one has found me yet. I'm pretty sure they've forgotten about this place, so we don't have to worry about it going to Distribution."
Ryan dropped to the soft, grassy ground. He stared up at the girl, a totally blank look on his face. "Distribution? What's that?"
"Gods!" she exclaimed. "You really don't know, do you?"
"Know what," he asked.
She crossed her ankles and lowered herself to the grass next to him. "This is going to come as a shock to you. I was really shocked when I figured it out myself." She took a deep breath. "O.K., everything you think you know about your life is fake, an illusion. Think about this: what is the earliest memory you have? How far back can you remember?"
Ryan considered this. "I remember my parents. I think I used to have a grandmother, maybe."
"I mean specific things. Do you remember what you got for Christmas last year? Or the year before? How about your first day of school? Do you remember that?"
He shook his head. "I do remember that big food fight in the cafeteria last week. That sure was a mess!"
Jennifer laughed. "Yeah, I was there. That was the first time I ever saw you. Can you remember anything specific before then?"
He shook his head again. "No, I don't. What does that mean? What are you trying to say?"
"I'm saying that we don't remember those things because we aren't as old as we think we are. If I figured it out right, I'm only about five months old. I must have been born just as I am now. I have a feeling you're much younger than that, probably just a couple of weeks."
Ryan bit his lip. "That's crazy. People aren't born as sixteen year olds."
Jennifer leaned back on her hands. "Maybe they are. Had you ever seen the Director before today? You seemed pretty confused back there."
"He seemed a little familiar, but I don't know. Who is he, anyway? How did he just pop out of the wall like that?"
"I don't have everything worked out yet, but as far as I can tell, the Director is the one who tries to make everyone do what the Control Gods want them to do. If things get messed up, the Edit Gods fix everything. It seems that people aren't 'born' like we think. I heard some people talking about 'coding'. They said that people are 'coded' by the Creation Gods and placed in the World.
"If the people in a particular place do everything they're supposed to, the whole place and all the people go to 'Distribution'. They disappear and go live in another World somewhere. Like some kind of reward."
Ryan's head swam with confusion. For many moments, he tried to reconcile what Jennifer told him with the few concrete memories he possessed. Finally, he asked, "What does it mean when you get 'wiped'?"
"That means you just vanish. You just poof out of existence."
He sighed. "This is just too weird. But, I can't think of a better explanation, considering what happened today. What do we do now? We can't just live out here in the middle of nowhere."
Jennifer pushed herself from the ground and held out her hand to Ryan. "C'mon, I have something to show you."
She led the boy out of the clearing and down a narrow dirt path. A couple of minutes later they emerged from the trees and were standing in front of a little log cabin, no more than twenty feet on a side. Jennifer pushed open a heavy plank door and pulled Ryan into the structure.
The interior was divided into two rooms, one much smaller than the other. The main room contained a long bookcase, filled with volumes of various shapes and sizes and a small table with two straight wooden chairs. Through a door less frame, Ryan saw a crudely assembled wooden bed frame covered by a lumpy mattress that resembled a stretched out laundry bag more than anything else.
Jennifer stretched out her arms and turned slowly in a circle. "Isn't this great! We can talk and read. When we get tired of that, we can take walks in the woods or just sit and look at the trees. Oh, Ryan, we'll be so happy here. And the best thing is that nobody is here to tell us what to do and what to say. Isn't it wonderful?"
Ryan wasn't convinced that it would be wonderful, but considering the alternative would be to return to face the Director and be wiped from existence it didn't seem too bad.
Jennifer wrapped her arms around Ryan's neck and pulled him close to whisper in his ear. "We're two of a kind, you know. We don't think the same way those other people do. We don't belong there. We belong here, together."
Ryan returned the hug and remained in her embrace for many long moments. When at last they reluctantly pulled themselves apart, they joined hands and took a long walk through the forest.
It was already ten minutes past twelve and Jack Kellogg was anxious to get to lunch. A frown on his face, he leaned forward in his chair and peered at the long list of files on his monitor screen. A moment or two later he leaned back and called over to the next cubicle.
"Hey, Ted. You gotta a minute?" he asked.
A chair slid over from the other side. "Sure, Jack. What's up?"
"I was looking at these new MovieWorld files and I found one way out of date sequence. It's over a year old. It should have gone to Distribution a long time ago."
Ted smiled. "Well, send it. I'm sure it's ready by now. Make it a freebie, since it's so old."
"O.K., here it goes." Jack pressed a button on his keyboard and the file disappeared from the screen.
Sixteen year old Jason Kimball sat in his big, cushy swivel chair in a small darkened room in the family basement, his eyes less than three feet from his new thirty two inch LCD monitor. Wiping the mouse back and forth across the desktop, he zoomed and panned, searching for some other activity on the screen.
Just then, his best friend Wayne Wilson drifted into the room. "Hey, Jay! What's up?" he asked.
"Check this out," Jason replied.
Wayne surveyed the screen for a few moments, and then asked, "What is that? It looks pretty boring."
Jason continued to pan. "It's a new MovieWorld -- free download. It is pretty boring. I can't find much going on."
He panned to the left and zoomed in on a little log cabin among a grove of pines. "O.K., look at this." He clicked on the cabin's wall to enter the cutaway view and zoomed in closer.
"All I can find is these two kids in the cabin. They don't do anything except read and talk. No wonder it was free."
Wayne rubbed his chin while he thought. "Why don't you wipe them and see if the program will spawn new characters?"
Jason nodded. "Why not? What can we lose?"
In a series of rapid movements, Jason right clicked on each of the two figures sitting in the cabin and selected 'delete'. In an instant, they were gone.
A few seconds later, the two boys watched as a grizzled and burly rancher bounded out of the cabin carrying a shotgun. He took refuge behind a thick tree as three masked bandits rode into view.
In the coming hour, Jason and Wayne enjoyed views of the ensuing gunfight from a multitude of camera angles.
© 2011 David Garlock
Bio: David Garlock, of Seattle, Washington, is an educator and long time fan of the science fiction genre who has only recently taken up writing. He is currently working on a number of additional stories and a novel length time travel adventure.
E-mail: David Garlock
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