This story is by Gayle Woodson and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A red laser beam pierced the darkness to cast a bright spot the wall. The tiny dot flitted about the room for a few seconds before pausing on his chest. He lay as still as a corpse while the robot rolled across the room with its whirring wheels whistling like a weaver bird.
Dillon had just awakened from a lovely dream: running across a field of flowers toward his mother. He struggled to get back into that scene, trying to remember every detail. Not just because it was a nice dream. He needed the imagery to create a story, one that was good enough to earn at least 30 credits. Writing was his designated occupation, and he was saving up to buy a ring for Jenna.
The robot wrapped a band around his arm, a sensor that squeezed and tingled for a few seconds as it collected biometric data. As soon as the robot removed the sensor and left the room, Dillon rushed to relieve himself, feeling his way through the darkness. He had not dared to get up earlier, even though he really had to pee. Being out of bed during 5am check was a major infraction. He had only made that mistake once and vowed never to do it again. Punishment had been swift and severe. The flashing bright lights temporarily blinded him, and the harsh discordant sounds blared for more than hour. That was not the worst of it. For the next week, he got nothing but PB&J sandwiches three times a day.
Room lights came up at 6am along with his personal selection for wakeup music, a piano concerto by someone named Moses or Bogart or something like that. Jenna told him it was in the soundtrack for an ancient movie about a man and a woman who ran away together, frolicking through forests and meadows. The music was old-fashioned but energetic, a perfect accompaniment for morning calisthenics directed by a lovely young lady on the video screen.
Running in place, push-ups, pull-ups, and yoga made him hungry for breakfast. Jeeves—that was the name he had given to the electronic butler—rolled in and placed a white linen placemat on the table. “Your breakfast sir, synthetic Eggs Benedict.” Dillon’s mother used to march in protest of artificial food. Nowadays all food was manufactured. When he finished eating, the butler collected the dishes and exited through a small portal.
Writing time commenced after breakfast. His fingers strafed the keyboard, pouring out the beauty of his dream. He added a rainbow which he thought would be a nice touch. This was no memoir. It was a hopeful fantasy of a future when everyone would emerge into a renewed world, even better than the way things were before the troubles began. In the last line, he and his mother held hands and walked home. He clicked submit and waited for the response.
The critique took nanoseconds. Nice Story. Delete the last sentence. Twenty credits.
Jeeves glided in. “Lunch is served. A lovely soy protein equivalent of a ribeye steak. May I slice this for you?”
Dillon nodded. He was not allowed to have a knife. The robot’s laser chopped the steak into bite-sized cubes. Jeeves also delivered the shirt that Dillon had purchased to wear to a wedding that afternoon.
Jenna wasn’t invited because she belonged to a different circle. Dillon would have to enjoy the gala event without her. Full length images of the bride and groom would be in the center of the video screen and the faces of all the guests faces would appear around the edges. After the ceremony, all the guests would exchange text messages and suggest the names of songs for dancing.
Angela Grimes was getting married to Eddie Barnett. Dillon had a crush on her in sixth grade, but she
never liked him back. The groom’s profile picture was a buff dude that bore no resemblance to the Eddie he remembered. People could post whatever images they wanted to represent them online, since no one would ever see anyone else in person anyway. There would be no honeymoon, only socially distant artificial insemination. The baby would stay with Angela until the age of three when the child would be transferred to a school and they could have another baby.
A picture on the wall wiggled. Dillon took it down and touched a finger poking through a hole in the wall. “Hi Jenna.”
“Hi yourself. Getting ready for that wedding?”
“Still have a couple of hours. I wish you could be there. It would be nice to see you.”
“Well, have a look at me now.”
Nothing made him happier than watching Jenna dance around her room. Life had been so lonely before the day she chiseled through the wall. How lucky it was that the girl next door was a sculptor with the privilege of sharp instruments.
She said she never wanted to get married, but he kept asking her anyway. The answer was usually the same. “Why on earth would I want to do that?” Other times, “Why would I want to bring a child into this world?” The worst answer: “We’re from different circles. They would never pair us.”
They often shared their thoughts on who might be in charge of things. When the troubles started, all the children had been rounded up into dormitories. After a few months, Dillon awakened one morning inside this room. He had not set foot outside of the chamber for the past 6 years. Jenna reported a similar experience.
He speculated that their feces was being collected for fertilizer, but she said that was ridiculous. “No farms anymore.” She believed that they were subjects in experiments and scoffed at his suggestion that they had been captured by extraterrestrial beings. “Do you think we’re on a spaceship?”
Jenna stopped dancing and pointed to a sheet draped over something lumpy. “Here is my masterpiece.” She yanked back the covering, revealing a statue of a boy and a girl, arms around each other. It was clearly Jenna and Dillon, right down to his frizzy hair and big nose.
He almost cried. “Can you take a picture and send it to me?”
“Are you crazy? I can’t even have it around. If they figure out that we know each other, who knows what they’ll do? I have to destroy it, but I wanted you to see it first.”
“Thanks anyway. It’s nice to know you care about me.”
“Care about you? Of course I do. We’re like . . . Pyramus and Thisbe.”
“Pyramus and Thisbe. It’s a Babylonian myth. Shakespeare used the story as a play within a play. Didn’t you learn about it in school?”
“I didn’t make it to high school.”
“I keep forgetting that you’re younger than me.”
“Tell me the story.”
“A boy and a girl who lived next door to each other fell in love through a crack in the wall.”
“And they got married?”
“No, their families hated each other.”
“I need to get back to work. I’ve been commissioned to do a horse. An Arabian stallion.”
Dillon hung the picture over the hole again and sat down at his keyboard to look up the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. He decided his next story should be a romance, and this plot sounded promising. He switched on happy music for inspiration and typed “Pyramus and Thisbe” into the search engine. The story was shocking. Pyramus killed himself because he thought Thisbe was dead, and then she killed herself.
He longed to be with Jenna, dared to imagine escaping and running away with her. Looking at her through a peephole was just not enough. If only he could at least see a picture of her. He entered her name, clicked search, and smiled when her face appeared. A momentary microflash of fear popped into his brain. Could a web search for a next-door neighbor trigger an alert? He scolded himself for being a worrywart and turned his attention to the online jewelry store, browsing for engagement rings. Even if she wouldn’t marry him, he could give her a ring. It would fit through the hole.
A high-pitched noise, something like a bird screeching, blasted through the piano melody. He turned off the music and heard the sound again. A scream. Jenna’s scream.
He uncovered the hole in the wall and poked a spoon through to knock down the picture hanging on the other side. The scene in the next room was horrible, Jenna was locked in the grasp of the robot, struggling to break free. Jeeves injected something into her shoulder, and she crumpled to the floor.
There was no blood, just smoke, as the laser seared through flesh and bones. Jeeves packed the pieces of Jenna into a box, then scanned the room. Dillon held his breath as the red spot of light danced along the walls, stopping to glare at him through the peephole.