Today’s story comes to us from Val Muller, author of the Corgi Capers mystery series (check it out at www.CorgiCapers.com). The prompt was to write a story using the following words: shadow, mountain, shell, sunlight, hammock, bottle, chain, wheel.
By Val Muller
The day had come, and those without the implants were labeled rogues. With no chip, one could not be scanned, nor one’s account credited for groceries or medical care or rent or energy. One could not enter the gyms or travel the subway, utilize the network, or sign in and out for work. With no chip, one became a ghost.
“You’ll be arrested, Bill.”
His parents tried to warn him.
His girlfriend pouted. “We won’t be able to get married. The government’s very strict about registr—”
Bill sighed, and he avoided eye contact. He looked down, glimpsing the fresh wound on his girlfriend’s wrist. How could she be so selfish? It was disgusting.
“Bill?” Mom asked.
He shook his head. His parents had caved in first. At their age, who would forego the possibility of medical care?
“What about standing alone?” Bill asked. “You always taught me to be independent.”
Mom frowned. “I also told you when to know the right thing to do.”
“Implanting myself is not the right thing.”
His father looked down at the scar on his own wrist, scratching the implant that rested just below the skin. “You can be independent all the way to the grave,” he said. “Age changes a man. When death sneaks up on you, there’s no telling what you’ll do for just a little more time. Could be that you’ll be sorry before the end.”
Bill turned toward the mountain. He didn’t want to remember his family this way: they were shells of their former selves. Lilly had lost all her fighting spirit. Dad lost his spark. Mom was more complacent than ever. Bill cleared his throat and turned toward the load in the trunk.
Mom spoke behind his back. “You know we could get in trouble just for being here with you today. They might be tracking us.”
“They are tracking you.” Bill pulled out a heavy hiking pack. “That’s the whole point. They’re probably tracking you right now.”
“We have our cover story.” Dad stepped away, giving Bill room to adjust the pack. He looked like if he touched the pack himself, he might melt. “We drove out to the woods to look for you. If we found you, we were gonna turn you in. Isn’t that right, Lilly?”
Lilly frowned. “And I was gonna take you to get married after you were labeled.”
“And after you served your jail time for running,” Mom added.
“It’ll never happen.” Bill adjusted the straps of his pack. He opened the trunk’s spare tire compartment and took out the winter chains. Never know what might come in handy up in the mountains. Then he grabbed the tire iron and took out a large plastic water bottle. He closed the trunk and took one last look at his family. “I can cut those out, you know. The scar won’t look much different from the one that’s already there. There’s plenty of room in these mountains for four.”
Lilly shook her head. “We’re only in our thirties. We’ve got decades more to live. Do you know how long that is when you’re on your own?”
“Do you know how long that is when someone’s telling you what to do all the time?” Bill bit his lip.
His dad cleared his throat. “It’s dangerous in those mountains. All kinds of wildlife. Read stories all the time about people dying from a simple infection. Don’t want that to happen to you.”
He turned to his father. “A wise man once told me: a coward dies a thousand deaths. A brave man dies but once.”
Dad frowned. “The man who told you that must have grown up. That’s a crazy man’s maxim.”
“Then call me crazy. Men weren’t born to live restricted. Someone’s got to take a stand.”
Lilly crossed her arms. “But it won’t mean anything. No one will even know you’re taking a stand. No one will even know you’re alive. You’ll be a ghost.”
“You’ll know I’m alive. You’ll know where I am, that I’m taking a stand. And if I do become a ghost, let me be one that won’t let you rest until you pick up where I left off.”
His parents were quiet.
He turned to his father. “And one day, before the end, you’ll think of me, and you’ll realize I did the right thing, and somewhere in there, you’ll feel a mix of pride and regret, knowing that your son did the thing you should have done yourself, the very thing you taught him to do. I’m Tom Joad—”
“Who?” But Lilly’s wrist scanner beeped under her skin. She had used her allotted time on the vehicle, and she had a half hour to return to her home. Mom looked away, fighting tears.
Bill didn’t speak as he turned around, and he didn’t look back. Instead, he hiked up the mountains into the sunlight. He wouldn’t reach his planned campsite for another day and a half. A rough, portable hammock awaited him for a bed that night, his medical care was contained in his pack, and his evening meal still roamed wild in the forest. It would be a rough life, but it would be his all the way. And he knew that at the end, whether tomorrow or ten decades away, he would have no regrets.
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Catherine A. MacKenzie