Contest #247 shortlist ⭐️

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Science Fiction Thriller Suspense


Winnie didn’t know what a city was like. 

She asked me about them, one night, her voice floating up from the bottom bunk in the darkness, drowning in the sea of cricket song. 

The windows were open, like they were every evening. We might as well have been sleeping out in the swamp for all the noise. Leaves rustled as frogs trilled to one another, and the heavy air vibrated with the wings of moths and mosquitos–but we were safe from them. The screens were closed. 

The sounds of the marsh were our lullaby. 

They also hid conversations from Aunt Beth’s sharp ears.

“Dunno, never been to one,” I muttered, turning over. The springs squealed beneath me. 

“Okay, but what do you think they’re like?”

“Lots of people,” I said. “Lots of cars.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Then say what you mean next time.”

She paused, and somewhere in the marsh a bullfrog bellowed. “I meant, why can’t we go there?”

This time I was silent. 

“Luz?”

“I don’t know, Winnie. Go to sleep.”

Winnie was up a lot at night. Sometimes I could hear her moving around in the kitchen in the wee morning hours. I wondered if it came from being blind.

When I closed my eyes, I saw black. I had no idea what Winnie saw. I was about to ask her when her voice hissed up at me again. 

“I know you’ve talked to Aunt Beth.”

“No, I haven’t.” My tone was a little bitter, and she heard it.

I’d asked Aunt Beth about the cities lots of times. She always made some stupid answer about the importance of getting your hands dirty and really living, and how cities weren’t good for that sort of thing.

Aunt Beth knew a lot about farming. Not much about kids, though.

I thought about cities a lot. I knew about the traffic, the people, the weird clothes they wore. And I knew a lot about cities from the past–New York City, Sofia, Beijing, San Francisco. 

“Where’s the closest one?” Winnie asked, and I could hear her yawn.

“Long ways away.” 

Torpor. 200 miles. 

“How far?”

She didn’t need to know, but I told her anyway. "400 miles, round trip."

She scoffed. “Heck, I thought it'd be farther. I could get there on the ASV in three hours."

I had thought that before, too. 

The whole bed creaked and bounced as she rolled over. “How do you know this stuff?”

“Books.”

“You gotta read them to me, Luz. I gotta know this stuff.”

This time I scoffed.

The cricket song swelled.

If Aunt Beth found out we were ever talking about cities–boy, would we be in bog water. 

If she ever found out that two days after Winnie’s questions I snuck out at 23:00 to unplug the ASV from its battery, she would exile me to the marshlands forever.

The ASV was old, older than I was. It ran pretty smoothly, though. You couldn’t get much height out of it anymore, but it was still real fast. My brother Ethan had installed a GPS thing in it and called it Sal. The name stuck. 

The marsh grass flattened as I tore over the fields, and in the bog places the water rippled underneath me. The humming of the engine drowned out the marsh noises. 

The night was pitch-black. The shadows were eerie, long and otherworldly in the headlights. Gradually the familiar swampland turned to open meadows, and in the wide sky I could actually make out two stars–usually I could only see the one.

Dratted light pollution. 

Meadows turned to dirt roads, real old ones that had probably been used back before Air Suspension Vehicles had been a thing. Back when they used old rubber and rusty hunks of metal to get around.

This was our border. This was the line we were never, ever supposed to cross, this back road.

My hands felt chill and my face hot as I sped over it.

Three hours is actually one heck of a drive, especially at 1:00 in the morning when your eyelids are drooping and you have to force yourself not to fall asleep at the handlebars. 

It’s even worse when it’s 2:00 and you realize the gravity of what you’ve just done.

I had to stop for a minute in the middle of the woods to gather my thoughts. And by gathering my thoughts, I really meant forcing myself to breathe really hard five or six times until I felt the oxygen swelling my brain. 

“What did I do?”

I was alone. In the dark. Farther from the farm than I had ever been in my life.

“What did I do?”

Aunt Beth was asleep. Winnie was asleep. Ethan was asleep.

“What did I do?”

I could be killed. Right now, I could drop dead in the middle of nowhere, and no one would ever know. 

Alternatively, I could be killed in the city. 

And then I would definitely be killed at home, when Aunt Beth inevitably woke and realized I was gone and the screen had been popped out of the bedroom window.

Poor Winnie. She would get so many mosquito bites. And then she would kill me, too.

Winnie.

If I was going to die anyways, I might as well figure out what a city was like so my last words could be ones describing that great mystery of life to my distraught sister.

The GPS chirped. “You are three minutes from your destination.”

“Thanks, Sal.” The sound of my own voice made me feel less alone. I revved the engine and tucked my helmet back on over my braids. 

The lights from Torpor came into view only thirty seconds later. Bright, white, illuminating everything. My eyes burned from the sheer fluorescence of it all. 

The woods stopped in a straight line, like the trees were afraid to approach the huge expanse of glowing buildings. All the pictures of NYC’s skyline couldn’t have prepared me for the height of these skyscrapers–they reached into the sky, pierced it like a needle. The clouds around them glowed.

Crazy. 

If this was the sole reason Aunt Beth kept us away from these places, I didn’t blame her.

I followed the road–it had become a paved one a while back, but I hadn’t noticed when–up to a shiny chain-link fence. Torpor was still miles away, shining like a bluish-tinted candle on the plain. I fiddled with the little lock on the gate and decided it wasn’t worth the effort to pick it; I could lift Sal over the fence anyway.

It took some heavy lifting, and some awkward maneuvering, but I managed to get Sal safely on the other side. Leaping the pathetic gate–it was just another border to cross, really, and my success over the first one still had me elated–I hopped on and rode up to the city, my eyes watering.

“Arrived,” Sal said.

Riding through the outskirts, I passed my first houses, if that's what they really were. They looked nothing like the cabin back home. For one thing, they were gray and awfully drab-looking. Each one had a garden, a little tree growing out front, and a little house beside the big one. Garages, for the ASVs and other vehicles, I guessed. 

Some of the flowers on the lawns were beautiful, bright, and flourishing, like the plants in the swamp.

Others were dead.

There were a few other mobiles on the road. All the fancy kind, which sat six and had a roof, and a real steering wheel instead of handlebars. 

Why stay out so late at night? Was that a city folk thing? Darkness was for sleeping.

But then again, I guess they never really had darkness in Torpor.

I rode past the suburbs and into the heart of the city. 

Signs. There were lots of signs. And noises. Voices coming from everywhere: every wall, every building. Mobiles began to crowd the streets. Mine was the only one exposed to the night air; all the others had tops. They shrieked their horns at me when the lights ahead flashed red and I sped past. 

Turns out red lights mean ASVs are going to swing out at you. I learned that real quick.

Red, stop. Green, go. Someone honks? Jump out of your seat, spin around, and find the culprit staring back at you from behind with the blankest expression you had ever seen. It was the same face Ethan made when I asked him about quantum mechanics, just to mess with him.

That was how the script went.

For all the angry noises they were making, city folk were pretty calm.

Then some idiot in a four-seater veered out into the road ahead and crashed into the mobile right in front of me.

The screech and clash of metal was deafening. The car ahead dropped to the pavement, the Air Suspension destroyed. I braked, sliding to a halt right before hitting the hunk of wrinkled steel in front of me.

“Hey!” I screamed, yanking off my helmet and jumping off Sal. “Hey, are you okay?”

The man in the crushed mobile waved a hand weakly out the window as the idiot scooted off. I shrieked after him, but he disappeared in the glowing traffic.

What was I supposed to do?

I ran over to the twisted vehicle, where the man’s hand was still swaying back and forth. The mobiles behind us honked and zoomed by.

“Are you okay?” I repeated, yelling through the open window near the sidewalk. “Hey! Are you hurt?”

The man lay in the driver’s side. A hat hid his face from view. His arm had gone limp.

I feared the worst and longed for the comfort of my bed at home, in the ocean of swamp sounds and darkness, for the quiet morning hours when Winnie got up to make herself a snack. 

Was she awake now? Did she know I was gone? 

Was she whispering questions up to my empty blankets, climbing up the ladder, feeling the abandoned bed? Running to Aunt Beth, to Ethan? Sprinting out to the barn, the empty barn where the ASV was supposed to charge?

The hat shifted. The man’s head turned. There was a little blood running down his forehead.

“Are you okay?” I asked again.

“I’m fine,” the man said. And he simply blinked at me. “I mean, it hurts, but I’m okay.”

“I need to call someone. Hang on, okay? I’ll get help.” I climbed up, off the sidewalk–I didn’t even realize I had been kneeling–and faced the nearest building. Was it an apartment, maybe? Surely someone there would have a telephone. Surely I could ring the police.

“Hey, little girl!” someone called. 

Not the man in the ASV–he had gone quiet. It was a woman’s voice.

“What’s with all the noise?”

I searched the face of the building to find the speaker. A tall woman, standing on the third floor balcony, her hair dark and loose. 

“Help!” I called up to her.

“Girl, you’re being way too loud,” she yelled back, leaning against the balcony railing. “Are you off your meds?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” She was off her rocker, for sure, but all I could do was hope she would help me. “Do you have a phone? Can you call an ambulance?”

“Why?”

I stared up at her, dumbfounded. “He’s hurt!” I gestured to the car.

“I’m fine,” the man called from inside.

“He’s fine,” the woman said, and she disappeared into her apartment. “Take your pills tomorrow,” she laughed, closing the glass door behind her.

I turned to the man. “You’re not fine.” I poked my head in through the window. “Where’s the hospital?”

“Two blocks from here. But hey, it’s my time.”

I blinked. “What?”

“My time to go.”

“No, it’s not.” I prodded his shoulder. “Don’t be an idiot!”

He shook me off. “Let me be.”

I wanted to go home. I wanted Aunt Beth.

The man faded out of consciousness.

“Help me!” I screeched, and some pedestrians walking by heard me and jumped. “Help me!”

How many people passed by? Thirty? What were they doing out so late at night, unbothered by the lights and the noise and the injured man on the side of the road?

“Hey, girl, calm down,” the man said suddenly, waking up. He began inching towards the open window.

I panicked. “No. Stay still!”

“No,” he returned, in a perfectly normal tone of voice. “I’m going home.”

He opened the ASV door and shuffled out onto the sidewalk as a gaggle of teenagers passed. His head was still bleeding. 

I was powerless to stop him. He stood up and marched on, down the pavement, limping.

I was left with the shell of a mobile and a face sticky with tears.

No anger. No sadness. Only blank expressions. 

I was surrounded by aliens. They couldn’t be human.

“Hey.” Someone poked me in the back. I whirled around and found a boy standing behind me.

“Are you okay? I saw what happened.”

His voice reminded me of Ethan’s. He was probably around Ethan’s age, too. “He just walked away,” I said, rubbing furiously at my tear-stained cheek. “Why didn’t anyone listen–?”

“Where’s your stuff?”

I paused mid-sob. “What?”

“Your medicine.” His voice was gentle. 

“I don’t–I don’t have any.”

He gave me a quizzical look. “Oh. Do you need some?”

I stared at him. “What are you, a pharmacist? No!” 

The boy’s eyes flitted from me, to the crushed ASV, and finally to Sal.

“I just want to go home,” I said, sniveling into my sleeve. “I just need to go–”

He interrupted. “You’re not from Torpor?”

“No.”

“Somnum, then?”

“I don’t know where that is!” I scooted over to pick my helmet up off the ground, tucking it under my arm and sitting back on the sidewalk. “I’ve never been to a city in my life!” 

When I say the color drained out of his face faster than water in a sink, I mean it. 

“What do you mean? You don’t live in a city?” His voice was a harsh whisper.

“No!”

“But I thought–” He shook his head. “Never mind.”

I studied him. An anomaly of emotion in a numb city. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked finally. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Oh.” He contemplated Sal. Then he answered me with a question, like Aunt Beth sometimes did. “What’s the point of life?”

I opened my mouth to tell him I didn’t have time for this, but he cut me off.

“Never mind, doesn’t matter what you think. People say it’s to be happy.” He sank to the ground beside me, tucking his arms around his knees.

That didn’t sound right to me, but I let him talk. 

“So what’s the point if you’re not happy?” he asked. I opened my mouth again, but he didn’t let me answer. “There isn’t one. So they made it so anyone could be happy, whenever they wanted, for as long as they wanted. If they can afford it, I guess,” he added. “I guess a better word for it would be complacent. Takes away all the negative feelings, you know?” He swirled his finger around his ear.

“That’s insane.”

“Hey, they’re doing what makes them happy.” He said it bitterly.

“That–” I swung my arm towards the crashed mobile “–is not happy!”

“I didn’t say I agreed with it. Works pretty well for people who don’t want a conscience anymore, either,” he said, after a thought. “Can’t feel guilt.”

For a minute we sat on the sidewalk together, hating the blaze of traffic.

“But why?”

“Better not to feel anything. Better for society if no one has to be sad or angry–that’s what they think. What I used to think, actually.” He pulled his jacket tighter around himself. “Two months clean.” He smiled sadly.

I stared at him.

“Is he gonna be okay?”

“Who? The man? I don’t know. The police’ll find him, eventually.”

“So there are police.”

“Oh, yeah. We got police.”

“And hospitals?”

“’Course.”

I frowned. “But nobody cares to call?”

He shrugged. “Some do, some don’t. They can’t feel anything when they see something like that happen, so a lot of the urge to help is gone. Negative feelings, you know?” More cars honked, and swerved around the wreck. “They could still do something if they wanted. They could choose to. But they’re lazy. Getting rid of their feelings just makes being lazy easier.”

“Like you.” I made my way over to Sal. Her handlebars were familiar in my hands. “You’re lazy. You didn’t call.”

“Don’t got a phone.”

I glared at him. He shrugged again. 

“Look, I’ll find one, okay? I’ll make sure someone takes care of him.”

I left him standing there on the sidewalk, beside the wrinkled mess of a mobile. 

The city was a blur. Whether it was my tears or my speed that made it look that way, I don’t know. Both.

I climbed the gate. 

I left, thinking how blind that lady was, with her numb thoughts and her empty laugh.

I had almost died in the city. And I was going to die when I got home, if not because of Aunt Beth then out of pure exhaustion. 

And I could never, never tell Winnie about it. And I would never, never go back.

Winnie would never know what a city was like.




















April 26, 2024 02:27

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20 comments

03:18 May 14, 2024

Phenomenal story! Winner might not be able to see, but feelings are sometimes better to have than sight.

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Milly Orie
13:00 May 14, 2024

Thank you, Lennox!

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Crystal Wexel
15:33 May 10, 2024

If big pharma had its way , this will be the future for sure . It’s already halfway there ! Ugh ! Great story !

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Philip Ebuluofor
18:40 May 07, 2024

Fine work here. Congrats.

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Milly Orie
01:17 May 08, 2024

Thank you, Philip!

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Laurie Spellman
13:00 May 06, 2024

Beautiful story ❤️

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Story Time
22:16 May 05, 2024

I thought the sense of tense isolation that ran throughout the story was really well-maintained. Great job.

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Milly Orie
00:55 May 06, 2024

Thank you!

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Lee Kendrick
13:37 May 04, 2024

Lots of atmosphere and good characterization. City all drugged up, a kind of control of the population (Dystopian). Similar to today how big pharma is in control!

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John Rutherford
10:57 May 04, 2024

Congratulations.

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Alexis Araneta
17:52 May 03, 2024

What a creative concept ! I love how smooth the flow of this story is. Well-deserved shortlist spot. Great job !

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Milly Orie
21:23 May 03, 2024

Thank you so much, Alexis!

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Mary Bendickson
14:52 May 03, 2024

Congrats on the shortlist and welcome to Reedsy.🎉

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Milly Orie
21:23 May 03, 2024

Thank you Mary!

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Daryl Kulak
16:54 May 02, 2024

Wow! Super innovative story, Milly. It kept my interest and was really a wild ride. I could see this being expanded into a novel.

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Milly Orie
23:41 May 02, 2024

Thank you! Your comment made my day. I'd love to expand the story, maybe one day it will happen!

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Yuliya Borodina
08:00 Apr 30, 2024

The beginning reminded me of "Where the Crawdads sing" because of the marshes and social isolation, but then it took a very unexpected turn. I enjoyed it! Thank you for sharing!

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Milly Orie
15:21 Apr 30, 2024

Thank you so much! That means a lot!

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Paul Hellyer
07:09 Apr 30, 2024

Interesting concept. I'll have to reread this again.

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Milly Orie
15:22 Apr 30, 2024

Thanks, I’m glad you found it interesting!

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