They started the program when I was fourteen years old. It was an effort by the ECCS –founded by PEUGO only a year earlier – in response to the rising tensions between governing factions, particularly those of the U.S. and the Middle East. The program emphasized the collectivization of future generations and had three central dictums: honesty is peace, the larger the hive, the broader the mind, and sedition is sacrilegious. It took okay, but I think we were too old for it to have the effect they wanted. Most people my age still lie, my parents too. Timid white whispers here and there: harmless, tiny, negligible. The big lies struck the world down, fired from between gritted teeth, stuck to the cracked lips of the politicians that mom and dad enjoyed criticizing on TV.
We didn't learn much about politics once the program started either; I guess they thought it wasn't valuable. Why would we need to study things like propaganda or socio-economic strategies? Honesty and loyalty would spread until they blanketed the earth with peace and trust, so what else was there to know?
However, my sister was much younger when she started her courses, maybe six or seven. It took much better for her. We're careful not to lie when she's around; projecting empathy and behavioural observation are two of the system's first lessons. Even the slightest flicker of the eyes, a hitched breath, would provoke from her a lengthy reprimand about our betrayal of the ECCS's humble efforts to recover our broken world. Worse yet, she would say, you're literally hoping it'll fail.
There are rumours about the production of a 'vaccine' that will be put to market in the coming years. It will be mandatory, my sister says, to help unify humanity and to help ease the distrust which bubbled beneath the social skin, threatening political collapse like the violent magmatic rebellion a volcano spits at the expanse of easy sky above it. My mom says it infringes on human rights; my sister says it will unearth covert fascists.
She says this one day over breakfast, casually dipping her spoon into her bowl, swirling spirals in the discoloured and grainy milk. Together we sat, shoulders brushing playfully back and forth, making my fork grate against the empty plate in front of me. Our mother stood at the stove, freshly cleaned dishes vaulted into their respective places with a precision only a mother would have. Across from us sat our father; he was hidden behind a newspaper, one he often pretended to read. It was an old habit he enjoyed from when the news used to anger him rather than scare him; I think he only looks at the pictures now.
"It's the obvious solution to our collapsing economy. Politicians have picked away at what it means to be human. Nothing will be left of us in the next few decades if we don't get it together." My sister's even tone hung in the air. "You need to do your part."
A pan slammed on the ceramic stovetop. I stilled, my coffee raised partly to my lips, and tried to hand off my grimace to the muddied reflection that peered back at me.
"It's unconstitutional! They have no business calling it a collective responsibility. You're being brainwashed."
A small bead of milk sat on Helena's bottom lip. For a fleeting moment, it looked green, and I wondered if I had heard it hiss as it snaked downwards. "If you're not careful," it was a wet, humming drawl, "you'll get arrested for thoughtcrime."
"Helena, that's enough." My father did not look out from behind the paper, and his voice was muffled as if he had spoken from another room. It was weak. "That's not a real thing. Stop trying to scare your mom. She's allowed to have her own opinions."
"Opinions aren't based on truth; they depend on perception, and that's just an excuse to assert an unnecessary sense of individual importance."
The most frustrating part was that, objectively, my sister made a good point. Sometimes her jargon was irritating and condescending, but one can hardly blame her; after all, she was taught to speak like that. Her analytical disposition made it difficult to deny the resulting social influence lying presented to our crippling society. It was still terrifying, though.
"Thoughtcrime was a concept proposed by George Orwell in that dystopian novel. Nineteen-whatever. It didn't turn out too good for them."
Helena snapped to face me. I thought about telling her to pluck her eyebrows; they looked silly pulled so close together like that. I decided not to.
"Nineteen Eighty-four. And it only turned out so badly because Big Brother was based on lies. And the protagonist was selfish."
"But those are opinions, Helena. They're someone's opinions presented to you as fact, but it's just bias. You can't confuse bias with the truth."
"Whose side are you on, Jenna?"
The floral pattern decorating my plate seemed more interesting than staring into the blaze that crackled in her eyes and popped in the back of her throat.
"I'm not on a side. I'm just saying."
Helena's chest puffed out; the sweetheart neckline tightened against her expanded ribs. "Well, you better pick one. Don't let mom and dad drag you to hell with them." Helena dismissed herself.
A sharp intake of breath shot across the counter. The rustle of discarded newspaper accompanied it, a thrumming current to an unfamiliar tune, tender and sad. I could hear the slow tick of a dozen bombs, in the cupboard, beneath the sink.
I thought about Kenny Chesney, and of love, and of freedom. I understood that the ECCS was supposed to save us, but at that moment, it seemed to me, when I looked around our fractured kitchen, that I was going to die on a battlefield in a war I didn't enlist for.
The vaccine was released two weeks ago. I stood outside the universities gymnasium for what felt like hours. By the time I stood in the propped double doorways, my palms were sore and raw. I watched as each person emerged from behind crimson curtains. Each of them had a smile etched so deeply into their cheek that I wondered if developing dimples was a side effect. But when the kind lady, with soft hands and rosen nails, gently pressed the needle against my upper arm, and we counted to ten together, I began to understand. As my gait carried me out of the gym, I thought back to the dilated vacancy I had seen in my peers earlier; it was relief. The vaccine was a cure for a hungry parasite I didn't know I hosted. This is heaven, I thought, and that is the truth.
My parents were arrested shortly after refusing to cooperate with the new mandate. Our mayor is sending someone to fix the hole in the drywall that my mom made as they drug her through the door. I had never heard her scream like that; I told her it would do no good and that she should stop her shameful flailing. I told her she brought this on herself. She didn't believe me; she didn't understand.
My sister stood beside me the whole time, her chin resting so fiercely on my collarbone that the sweetest blossom of purple decorated my skin the following day. As was declared along with the mandate, Helena and I would inherit the home and our parent's benefits. It was peaceful now.
"I told you,” my sister hummed one day over breakfast.
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