Getting There Fast — White, Christian America — Under Water

Behind the scenes. Behind your back. Under your nose.

Yes, this is a rant.

While you’re being entertained, amused, distracted — the far-right agenda is being carried out, spreading. In towns you’ve never heard of, on school boards that few bother to vote for, in police departments with new high-tech military toys, and implicit permission from their commander-in-chief — your president.

Deportations of “the bad guys” is now deportation of anyone with a non-white skin or name — with no criminal records, with businesses and families, with medals from serving honorably in US wars.

Black men and boys are dying at escalating rates — at the hands of police. But you can’t kill everyone, or deport them all, so jails and prisons will do very well to help keep American society white.

But you know what? All this is small potatoes. Because nature as we know it is dying, and a good portion of life on earth will be dying with it. It doesn’t matter whether you do or don’t believe in climate change. Doesn’t matter who you think is at fault. It’s happening now, and faster than cautious scientists have been predicting. But even the most cautious are now speaking out, warning, letting the facts speak for themselves instead of softening them for popular consumption.

The information is there. It’s always been there. If you want to go on being entertained, amused, distracted that’s your choice. Too bad it won’t be a choice for your children and grandchildren.

Is Resistance Futile?

If you still have the capacity to read something that takes more than two minutes to get through and actually requires that you get your thought processes into gear, I recommend one of Charles Stross’s recent blog posts. It’s actually the transcript of a speech he gave, and provides more than the shallow analyses of social media, tracking, privacy issues, etc., that are calculated to make you gasp with horror for a moment or two before you go on to the next trivial pursuit.

Dude, You Broke the Future!

The question that always comes up (for me, anyway) when reading articles like this, is: is there any escape from the negative effects of current technologies that run the internet?

Suppose, like me, you don’t use any of the social media sites — no Twitter, no Facebook, etc. You don’t have a smart phone, or if you do, you don’t use any but the most basic apps — the ones that enable communication between two people in the form of speech or text — no internet, no movies, no social media, etc. You use an online-only name, have an avatar in place of a photo of your face, and you either ignore or anonymize demands for personal information.

Does WordPress attempt to pin down my likes and dislikes, my needs as a writer or a possible customer? I have no idea. But Amazon surely does. To a certain extent that makes Amazon my achilles heel, but there’s still very little they can do to direct my attention to consumer items they think I’d want to buy. Part of that failure is based on their having no idea exactly why I might look at items. Thus they have no way of anticipating whether I will or won’t look at them again and eventually make a purchase.

That’s the failure of algorithms that can’t deal with motivation, whether it’s about stuff to buy or how to vote. It’s also the failure of algorithms that are set up as nags, in the belief that sooner of later you will succumb to the demands, such as whitelisting sites rather than blocking their ads, because you’re guilted about using them without supporting them.

Escaping the all-seeing eyes is probably impossible unless you live in the woods and don’t use the internet or a cell phone, but you do have discretionary powers if you care to use them. If you choose not to, then you will have no right to complain when you find your ability to function as a free human being rated and limited by algorithms similar to those now being put in place in China. The United States is on the cusp of becoming an autocratic semi-dictatorship. The choice is to acquiesce or resist.

 

 

Penitents Progress Report

This is an expansion of the latest (today) journal entry for Penitents. It’s coming along, even though I still have no idea whether I’ll actually write it. Or anything else.

The notes and questions are accumulating, and I’ve even scribbled some text fragments. I have a much better idea of my central character, some secondary characters, a sense of where this story might go.

The character—Grayson— is still central, but I haven’t had much of a sense of what his world is like—until just now. It’s the same world that Camp Expendable is set in. Maybe even the same as A Well-Educated Boy. Though Well-Ed is probably set somewhat earlier, before the country is in near-total collapse.

So it might be interesting to find ways in which to link the stories, showing that they’re all outcomes of an ongoing process of social, economic, and environmental fragmentation and decay. Part of that would be setting actual dates for the action of each story so that (assuming I write them all–hah hah) they can be read in chronological order. Maybe giving characters from one story small roles in another, though that’s probably too much of a stretch.

Still a major concern is my reluctance to start a large project. If I’m going to write it at all, I want to keep it to novella length, and that’s looking less and less possible. Each new character adds complications and length if they’re to be more than cardboard cutouts.

Here’s a bit that’s more or less the way I want it. Grayson is trying to explain to Lydia why he wants to do a one-week guest retreat with the brotherhood.

“What have you ever done that you need to do penance for? You’re just an ordinary person, like the rest of us. You’re not doing any of the horrible things that messed up the world.”

He opened his mouth to answer and knew that if he didn’t pay attention, he would stumble over his tongue as he usually did when Lydia put him on the spot. It was too much: get the words out properly and make sure they’re words that say what he meant to say. “It isn’t me, Lydia.” He stopped. Not him. That would make it even crazier in her eyes, wouldn’t it? “Okay, it is, a little bit, just because I’m living — eating, eliminating, using up resources…”

“So am I,” she broke in. “So I’m guilty too? Do you want me to share your poverty to make up for… Oh, I don’t know. Whatever.” She waved her hands in angry frustration.

“It’s a brotherhood. They don’t take women.” The second the last word was out of his mouth, he knew it was absolutely the wrong thing to say. He’d jumped off the track–again.

“I don’t care about that! It isn’t the point, Gray.” She sprang up from the couch, banging her shin on the coffee table. “Do whatever you want. I’m not going to argue with you about it. If we’re lucky, you’ll realize it’s just another one of your obsessions and it will burn out by the time you get back. So go! Sleep on the ground naked and eat grass, or whatever it is they do to demonstrate how we should all be living to make up for… for being alive, for heaven’s sake!”

The World We Don’t See

The world we don’t see is the one that we are most deeply embedded in — the everyday world around us. An article about the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro highlighted something that will be an ongoing concern for me, in writing A Well-Educated Boy — the initial obliviousness of the central character to the truths of his existence, and his gradual recognition of them.

“He (Ishiguro) can describe things about our world that nobody else can. In Never Let Me Go, that thing, I think, is the crushing weight of circumstance on our lives. The place in space, history, and social hierarchy that we occupy is an accident of birth and a cage, Ishiguro shows—one that our humanity resists.”

I’m reminded of my own growing up in the deep south, in a large metropolitan area that, even in the 1950s, remained trapped in the racially divided 19th century. It wasn’t until many years after I had graduated that it even came to my consciousness that my high school of over 900 students didn’t have a single black student. That I had never had black school mates at any time, from 1st grade on.

Luckily for me, my parents were transplanted, educated, politically liberal northerners, not native southerners. So I grew up free any specific prejudices, along with my total ignorance.

Harte Simmons is  just as ignorant and naive, life in his idyllic little town protecting him from the problems and the growing violence of the rest of the world. I’m still working out how to make his life very ordinary and at the same time, drop hints, or foreshadow, the slow development of his awareness that something is very wrong in Burgundy. The “man behind the curtain” is not a dictator. There is no power-hungry madman lurking behind the scenes. Nevertheless, Burgundy is a kind of dystopia that will probably never be recognized as such by the vast majority of its inhabitants.

Fairly soon, I’m going to have to reread Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go because my very impatience (and boredom) with its description of the school and the lives of its students, when I read it years ago, may be the clue I need to how to accomplish my goals.

Catching Up — Again

I’m way, way behind on everything: blogging, writing, housework. So A Perfect Slave is just where it was several weeks ago, and I’ve done practically nothing with A Well-Educated Boy. Any kind of work that takes the least physical effort has been blind-sided by health issues, and creativity doesn’t do any better. At the moment, I’m transcribing three hand-written pages for a friend’s blog, a task I’m spreading out over two days, plus I owe him a letter, so that’s the big deal right now.

But I did suddenly find the answer while reading an article on The Prisoner tv series, just a little while ago, to a major question about Well-Educated Boy. A good deal of the preliminary work before I start the actual writing is asking a lot of questions about plot, characters, motivation, etc. This particular issue wasn’t super-critical, but it’s one that some readers might have noticed as a weakness in the plot. So that’s a step forward, even though I won’t get around to developing it immediately.

Not off-topic, if you are in the slightest oriented toward science fiction, I highly recommend the article: We Are All Prisoners of the Police State’s Panopticon Village. And it reminds me once again that I really would like to watch The Prisoner again one of these days, though it will mean having to buy the series.

Be seeing you.

A Well-Educated Boy — Random Thoughts

9/5/12 — That’s when I created the Scrivener project for A Well-Educated Boy. Five years ago. It probably started as little more than a bare bones idea, and it isn’t atypical for how long I can work on a project. In August of last year, I was apparently considering devoting November to actually writing it, during NaNoWriMo . It didn’t happen, and even now, though I have tons of notes and a very good idea of how it will turn out, I’ve written only a few thousand words of possible text.

As is usual with me, now that I’m stepping into the deep waters, I’m already thinking ahead to promotion. Several years ago, I posted segments of a novel on Wattpad for a while, but found that the effort of attracting attention was just too time-consuming. Quite a few people say that there is good writing on Wattpad, but finding it is a frustrating exercise in skimming hundreds of pathetic attempts at creativity. So, making yourself known by commenting and rating can be an exercise in futility.

And yet — I still, now and then, give some thought to trying it again. The young adult audience is built in, and a recent commenter on a writer forum said that there is a significant audience on Wattpad for dystopian/post-apocalypse fiction. Boy isn’t post-apocalypse, and its dystopian elements aren’t as exciting as stories like The Hunger Games or Divergence. It isn’t an action novel, and unlike Hunger Games and Divergence, it isn’t more fantasy than science fiction. So is there an audience for a young adult/dystopian novel that is more thoughtful than action-oriented? I have plenty of time to think about it, so I’m not inclined to say yay or nay right now.

A Well-Educated Boy — What’s it About?

The first step in documenting the development and creation of a novel: Tell the readers what it’s about, and how I envision it.

Boy is both a YA and a coming-of-age novel, but mainly it’s about dystopias — two of them, existing at the same time. Harte Simmons was born and grew up in one of them, a small town that, on the surface, is almost a utopia. Burgundy is crime-free, its schools are excellent, and all the adults are employed. It’s also a little unusual, in that it’s what was once called a “company town.” Burgundy is privately owned by a large corporation.

Steven Simmons, Harte’s cousin, lives in a suburb of a typical urban center. He’s a year older than Harte. The two families take turns visiting during summer vacations and holidays. Both boys have had reasons to be envious of the other’s life, but gradually they become less naive and less envious. Each town, in its own way is a dystopia, though they’re very different from each other.

This is Harte’s story, told after he’s graduated from high school and left Burgundy. He was a typical, privileged, alienated teen, certainly not a hero, but in his last two years of high school, he lost his best friend to suicide, was forcibly enrolled in an alternative school run by the corporation, and began to understand how the world works.

He lives just a few decades down the block from us. There are no aliens, no major catastrophes (this is not a post-apocalyptic novel), no world-spanning evil overlords of any kind. The technologies in use either exist right now or are in development. It’s a world that doesn’t look terribly different from our own. And that’s the central problem I have to work out. How do I show that a world that looks so much like ours is an ominous warning of the world we’re already becoming? That’s what I’ll discuss next time.

 

Battle of the WIPs

A Perfect Slave isn’t really a WIP since it’s complete, but needing some final editing. I’m halfway through that, but I should be just about done by now, almost ready to publish. It looks as if it isn’t going to happen. Why? Because A Well-Educated Boy has taken possession of my mind and won’t let go.

I always spend a lot of time in preparation before I start writing, but what’s going on right now is sheer obsession, or something very close to it. Over the more than a year since Boy made its appearance as a bare-bones idea, it has morphed and grown into something far from the original, rather simplistic, concept. It’s become far more complex, and it owes some of that complexity to questions that several essayists have proposed lately.

It seems that I’m not alone in thinking that science fiction needs to pull its attention from battles that are distant both in time and place, and consider where we are now and where we are possibly going in the near future. I’m far more interested in dystopias than in apocalypse, but the majority of dystopias in current science fiction are written as if they happened more or less suddenly, and as if the entire world (or nation) is in a monolithic state against which the heroes (usually teens) must battle.

That kind of dystopia is, to put it bluntly, a fantasy. Even if we accept that certain trends may converge from many points, as in the world-wide increase in bigotry and fear about the other: people of color, refugees, gender nonconformists, etc., that they could converge into one monolithic, all-powerful government is so unlikely that its possibility approaches zero.

But those fears, taken advantage of by powers already in existence: corporations and the military, could certainly lead to localized dystopias of various kinds. Many dystopias can exist simultaneously, and function in very different way. A Well-Educated Boy will be about two of those possibilities, both of which are actually possible today, and some features of which are already in place.

We are all living in a period of serious upheaval and transition. Most of that is invisible to us because it is taking place over months and years, slowly enough that we become accustomed to what is going on and accept it as normal. For instance, in spite of increased flooding and endless warnings from scientists about sea level rise, some 60% of home owners in S. Florida are unaware of or unconcerned about it. It wouldn’t be that difficult to write a dystopia that focuses on coastal cities and the long-term effects of climate change on lives and property.

Writing this more realistic version of utopia is more difficult, though, when the protagonist is a high school student. How do I avoid turning him into some clichéd save-the-world teen hero? How do I show his gradual realization that there’s little or nothing he can do to change the world, even his limited, local world, without ending the book in a state of despair and hopelessness? What can I give him as motivation for not giving up in the face of overwhelming power?

Books like The Hunger Games and Divergent speak to young people’s need to matter in a world that has very little use for them except as consumers. But how can we expect them to be anything but consumers when heroism and rebellion are presented to them as impossible fantasies with no basis in the real world? What can we give them that will keep them from being consumed by the bigotry and violence currently showing its face in Virginia?

Publishing a fantasy about slavery just doesn’t seem important right now.

Trauma and Creativity: Off the Beaten Path

The last couple of months have been a no-writing zone, and the medical issues responsible probably aren’t going away anytime soon. The devil’s brew of meds I’m taking probably has something to do with what I perceive as a cognitive decline. Not anything so serious that I can’t function more or less normally, but certainly getting in the way of sustained work on writing projects. I’ve also come to see this non-productive period as similar to the one I went through after the apartment building fire and having to start my life over. Call it trauma, or even a mild form of PTSD. It’s a psychological shock to the system, and it’s bound to have effects on intellectual function. But what I learned last time is that it doesn’t last forever. Even the destruction of the belief in a healthy old age has to be accepted, and adapted to. Unless I want to take on the role of victim.

In spite of the cognitive decline, which includes a loss of focus for sustained work, creative insights keep coming. Since my novels tend to take at least a couple of years for development and completion, the current slowdown doesn’t seem terribly significant. What is significant is that the bursts of creativity are based, as they always have been, on input from my reading, both fiction and nonfiction, including current news. When I can’t write, I read, as always, and probably more obsessively. And there is no way to anticipate what will trigger sudden insights into an ongoing piece of work.

A Well-Educated Boy isn’t the WIP I’m currently working on (or trying to work on), but it’s the one that’s developing most actively in terms of plot and characterization. One of the interesting things that happens when a novel develops over a long period of time is that it can change significantly from my original concept. In the case of Well-Educated Boy, the emphasis has been shifting from Hart’s discovery of what lies behind the peaceful facade of his hometown, to the psychological changes he goes through over the course of the novel. The strong influence here comes from several novels that portray, to one extent or another, the development of the central character from childhood to maturity.

Both as a fictional theme, and an aspect of real life that puzzles and intrigues me, the maturation process and the possibilities of future potential are an endless source of material for the creation of complex characters capable of surprising readers. Richard Herley’s The Earth Goddess was the first book to focus my attention on this theme, and is still central to how I think about my characters. That’s followed in importance by the Phoenix Legacy trilogy by M. K. Wren, and more recently by Lion’s Blood, an alternate history by Steven Barnes. What is important is the many different paths by which a character’s temperament and life might be formed, and how the one chosen or forced on them determines the shape of the fully formed adult.

In the case of Hart Simmons, his developmental arc ignores the usual young adult trope, in which our youngster overcomes a major negative force, such as an oppressive government, and becomes something of a hero. Instead, Hart has to acknowledge a power that is ubiquitous and fully capable of swatting him aside if he attempts to face it down. The question then is how he manages to live with that understanding without succumbing to hopelessness and acquiescence.

Well-Educated Boy is dystopian science fiction as well as young adult fiction, and this is another area where I want to ignore the usual themes in favor of something more complex and realistic. So Hart will experience two kinds of dystopias, the one in which he lives, as a citizen of a corporate-owned town, and the one taking place outside that cocoon, one not very different from our current reality in many ways. Compare and contrast.

A lot of this hasn’t been worked out yet, of course, so I’m prepared to be surprised.

Dipping into Young Adult — Divergent

Divergent has not been on my TBR list. In fact, I fully intended to never read it. Why? Because when I read the description and some reviews, the basic premise seemed just as ludicrous as the premise of Hunger Games. I did read Hunger Games a couple of years ago, out of curiosity, but that curiosity was more than satisfied with the first volume. So when Divergent came along, it was a big unh uh for me.

But when I had the chance to buy it for a measly dime a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well give it a try. It’s still ludicrous, and I still have little sympathy (if that’s the right word) with the trend (if it’s still a trend) of pumping ordinary kids up into unbelievable heroes in order to make teens and young adults feel good. So it’s a girl. Yay! And she soldiers on with a bullet in her shoulder. Yay! But this kind of book isn’t about realism, so that’s just my take.

However… I’m glad I read it. Since the action, at least, is somewhat closer to reality than Hunger Games, and it’s well-written, for the most part, it gave me some insights about the development of A Well-Educated Boy. For one, it reminded me that my writing is still too barebones, and that Boy is likely to suffer from that fault. Almost any book will benefit by a richly described world, and deep diving into the main character’s inner life, but I think young adult science fiction really demands it. Until very recently, I wasn’t even thinking about Boy as young adult, so there’s that transition to get through.

Another insight is about titles. While I love A Well-Educated Boy, and it conveys the theme of the plot, it’s meant to be ironic, which isn’t apparent until you’re well into the novel. Plus, doubt that most younger readers will even catch it. Even worse, it sounds like the title of an essay on education. Not exactly a hook for curious minds. So, from now until the book is actually finished, I’ll be tossing around more catchy titles. At the moment, a better one seems like an impossibility, but maybe that’s because I’ve lived with this one for so long that it’s embedded in my brain.

Privileged Lives — Chapter three, Part two, Linden

Linden sat in numb silence between the two soldiers. The statement that they had a plane to catch didn’t make any impression. He hardly took note of the long ride and the way it was taking him farther away from his mother with every minute that passed. That all came later.

But there was finally an end to the trip, at least that part of it. They got out of the car and walked from an almost-empty parking lot to an almost-empty airport waiting room. Linden started to wake out of his stupor and looked around. The place didn’t look anything like the airports in movies. The waiting room was small and he could see the airfield from the big windows. There were no big passenger jets, just one small plane, looking lonely and, somehow, ominous. Sharing the waiting room with him were more soldiers and a few kids his own age. A soldier with a clipboard in his hand, walked over to him.

“This Linden Thomas?” At a nod from one of Linden’s guards, the man made a mark on the clipboard and said, “We’re all here, then. I’ll let the pilot know we’re nearly ready to go.”
Linden became aware that someone was staring at him. When he lifted his eyes to the huddled group of kids, he saw three girls and three boys. One of the girls was crying. One boy’s eyes were suspiciously red and swollen, and he glared at Linden as if he was to blame for their being here. Or maybe he was making them late. He didn’t know and he didn’t care. He clenched his fists and glared back, then walked over to a seat near the wall. The soldier with the clipboard stepped in front of him. Instead of the clipboard, he was holding a metal bracelet.

“Hold out your left arm, son.”

“Why?” Linden asked, the spirit of resistance suddenly raising its head. It was much too late, but it made him feel alive for the first time since he’d walked away from his home. “Suppose I don’t?”

The soldier closed his eyes, mumbled something and then gave him the expression that adults gave kids who were being annoying. “It won’t get you anywhere, you know. Just give me your arm.”

Linden didn’t move. He watched the man’s hand reach for his arm. Watched the bracelet being put around his wrist and heard the snap of a catch. It wasn’t his arm, he decided. He would simply refuse to accept that it was his arm, encircled by a bracelet of cold, hard metal.

“It’s a temporary ID, in case you’re wondering. It’ll be removed when you get your permanent ID.”

The hand let go of his arm and he let it drop. It took with it the brief flareup of rebellion and the cold numbness returned. When a door opened a few minutes later, Linden followed the others out onto the tarmac and up the metal steps into the sleek two-engine plane. He’d never flown before, and a little voice in the back of his head kept trying to tell him he should be excited. He let himself be directed to a seat, let the drone of the engines lull him. He ignored the voices of the soldiers in quiet conversation, and the sudden cry from one of the girls: “I want to go home,” and the sobbing that followed.

He dropped into a shallow doze that was broken just for a few seconds, every now and then by a raised voice. The first bump when the plane hit an air pocket jerked him fully awake, panicked. But no one else seemed alarmed, and he allowed himself to drift off again. Vague thoughts floated through his mind and disappeared. He should look out the window and see what the world looked like from up here. He should pay attention to what was going on around him. He should remember all this so he could tell his mother about it, later. The thoughts faded and he slept again. Suddenly, it seemed to him, they had arrived at another airport and were leaving the plane. There was another long ride, in a van this time, with the other children and the soldiers who’d been on the plane with them. The slamming of a heavy metal gate finally brought him out of his daze. He got out of the van with the others and found that they were surrounded by buildings that said ‘college,’ but it didn’t look anything like the pictures in the brochure. We’re here. Wherever here is. The van drove off, and the soldiers who’d come with them headed to another part of the campus.

Eight adults stood in front of the small group. One was a tall man in a uniform that was much fancier than the ones the soldiers had worn, and with shiny decorations on the shoulders. He stepped forward and ran his eyes over the seven children. “You look tired, youngsters. It’s been a long trip and I’m sure you’d like to rest. I’m Major Cornwell, provost of Merriman College. I want to welcome you as the latest members of this year’s class. And the last to arrive.”

Linden stared at him, trying to work out the meaning of the uniform and the rank, and everything suddenly clicked into place. He shuddered. If this was a military academy, he wasn’t going to survive. He’d failed his high school’s compulsory cadet training program quite spectacularly. They’d thought it was just a bit of childish rebellion, that he would give in eventually, but he hadn’t. He refused to wear a uniform. He refused to march. He refused to learn the commands or the stupid pledge that they were supposed to recite. He’d won, as far as that was possible. He had to attend, but he’d been allowed to sit on the sidelines while the other students drilled. He was sure that failure here would be get him more than reprimands and a bad grade on his report.

“I’m aware that not all of our students are pleased to be here when they arrive, but that will change, I assure you.”

I’m not the only one. I bet none of them want to be here. The major confirmed every hateful word of the instructions, every word from Mrs. Kinney’s lips. He’d been tracked, like an animal, and all they had to do was wait for the right time to capture him. He’d never had a chance. Maybe some of the students were proud of having been selected. Maybe they even liked it here, but he would never be one of them.

The major waved his hand at the other adults and stepped back into the line with them. “These are your tutors. They will also be your advisors and, we hope, your friends. They will be sharing your quarters, and their first job will be getting you settled in. Tomorrow, they’ll accompany you to the orientation for the incoming class.”

The tutors were dressed identically in exercise clothes, in shades of gray and black. They each carried a clipboard, and it didn’t take a genius, Linden thought, to figure out that the new students’ photos were right on top. The adults knew exactly who was who. They introduced themselves and led their charges away, all heading for the same building, chatting as they went. Linden’s tutor was a man with a sour face and stiff posture. He certainly wasn’t the one Linden would have chosen if he’d had a choice. He wondered briefly if he’d ever have a choice about anything, ever again.

“I’m Tobias and I’ll be your tutor and advisor for the next few months.”

He didn’t looked pleased, and the introduction was so abrupt that it took Linden a second to register that the man had walked off without offering his hand, obviously expecting him to follow.
Exhausted, hungry, and expected to accept as his tutor and advisor—and friend—a man who clearly wasn’t happy to see him, Linden dawdled, letting himself fall behind. If he got lost in the building, Tobias could just come and find him. He was almost disappointed to find the tutor waiting for him inside, his arms folded, disapproval coming off him like a heat wave.

“You’re going to have to learn to move a lot faster than that, young man.”

“I know how to move faster,” Linden snapped. “I just wasn’t expecting to be treated like a dog on a leash.”

Tobias had started toward a stairway. He stopped and spun around. “Let’s get one thing straight, right now. I’m not going to put up with any insolence. My job is to keep you on track with your studies, and that’s what I’m going to do. You don’t have to like me, but I expect a minimum of courtesy.”

“That would be a lot easier if you showed me some.” Linden put his hand out and leaned against the wall, suddenly dizzy. He shook his head to clear it, and with the last of his energy, he said, “I just want to be treated like I’m a student and not a prisoner.”

Tobias stared at him, then turned around and went toward the stairway, at a slower pace. “It’s only one flight,” he said, without looking back.

The hallway at the top of the stairs was bleak, with a dozen or so doors on either side before it turned a corner. “This floor in this wing is for new students. There’s a print map of the building and the campus, next to the stairway, and it’s also on your computer.” Tobias put his hand to a plate next to the last door on their right. “Put your hand here and let the building register your identity. Your hand print lets you in and out. It also keeps a record of exits and entrances.”

Linden was too tired to ask why, and Tobias didn’t volunteer the information. He already had the feeling that Tobias wasn’t much of a talker and wasn’t going to tell him anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. How was he going to find any good in this situation if he had this antagonistic man hanging over him all the time? He stopped in the now open doorway, appalled. He could see the entire place from where they were standing, in a small bedroom that was the center of the apartment. The bed was just a few feet in front of him. The rooms were small, efficiently arranged, and as cheerless as the hallway. With the exception of the white walls, everything was in shades of gray, even the bed covering. The light from the window above the bed didn’t do a thing to brighten the place up.

“Is this your bed or mine?” he asked Tobias, who seemed to be waiting for his reaction to his new home.

“Yours. My bed is in there.” He pointed to the room on their left.

Linden took a few steps in that direction and looked in. The space was even smaller than his own, and just as dreary. But what gave him an unpleasant feeling in his chest, was that though the beds were separated by a wall, there was no door. Neither of them would have any real privacy. The room to the right of the entrance, a study, also lacked a door. It had a worktable with a computer and two tablets, two chairs, and a few shelves on one wall. It was also the route to the bathroom. That did have a door.

Linden scanned the corners of the rooms, where the walls met the ceiling. “Where are the cameras?”

“There are no cameras.”

Linden’s sarcastic mode, so much a part of him when he was in school, took over. “So my dinky little school in Nowhereville keeps an eye on every twitch, but here I’m in the heart of the machine and there are no cameras?”

“I told you, we don’t need them. And I’m part of the machine, so I suggest you watch how you speak to me.”

“Really? I thought you looked kind of like a stiff. So why no uniform?”

“I don’t wear my uniform when I’m serving in this function. We’re usually short regular tutors because the student body is growing quickly. Support staff has to fill in until . . .”

“Until what?”

“Until none of your business,” he snapped out. Go take a shower and change your clothes,” he added, leaving Linden with one more thing to think about. “You’ll feel better. I’ll take you down to the cafeteria afterwards.”

“I don’t have anything to change to.”

Tobias pulled open a drawer in a low chest that spanned the room from the doorway to the wall of his own bedroom. Linden hadn’t noticed it before, and he wondered what would fill so many drawers.

“My clothes are in the drawers at my end of the room. Yours are in the middle section. The rest are for towels, sheets, etc., and winter wear.” He pulled out a pair of what looked like yoga pants, a pair of boxer briefs, and a long-sleeved henley, all dark green, and tossed them on Linden’s bed.

“Everything’s green.”

“That’s right. Freshman green.”

“I don’t like green.”

“Then go naked,” Tobias said, his voice sharp with annoyance.
Linden decided that from now on he wouldn’t ask Tobias anything that he could figure out for himself. He picked up the clothes and went to find out what the bathroom was like. Like the rest of the apartment, the bathroom was utilitarian and not an inch bigger than necessity demanded.

There was a shower, but no tub. The floor and shower enclosure were tiled in white and shades of gray. “Great color scheme,” he muttered. “Nobody will ever be able to tell if the place needs to be cleaned.”

He avoided looking at Tobias when he came back out. A quick glance had been enough. He wondered whether the anger had anything to do with him, or was just part of the man’s personality. “The clothes fit okay.”

“Of course, what did you expect? Let’s go.”

Linden followed silently, keeping his head down. He didn’t want anyone to see that he’d been crying. He’d sat on the shower floor letting the water pour over him until it started to cool, and he remembered that Tobias was waiting for him. Tobias would expect him to eat. Tobias would expect him to get up in the morning, and he didn’t know if he could do that.

Privileged Lives — Chapter three, Part one, Linden

Chapter one starts here

Linden lay on his bed, not moving, trying not to think. They’d walked home in silence, and as soon as Carrie closed the door behind them, she tried to put her arms around him. He’d managed not to cry before, but her comfort was more than he would have been able to resist. He pushed her away, ran upstairs to his room, and shut the door. Two or three times, as the afternoon passed, he heard her walking quietly up the stairs and coming to his doorway. She waited a few seconds each time, and then went away again. He was making things worse for her, and that made him feel guilty, but he didn’t know what to do about it.

He didn’t think he’d miss school too much, but he couldn’t imagine his life without his mom. When would he see her again, and how would she manage without him? She depended on him for so many things since his dad died. He couldn’t leave her to manage on her own, but he couldn’t think of any way to keep it from happening. He thought about running away and hiding, but they might keep coming back and, eventually, they’d find him. And they might do something terrible to his mom if he disappeared.

It was almost dark when the spicy smell of sausage came floating up the stairs. Reluctantly, he let his nose lead him down to the kitchen.

“Mom! What are you doing? You said we can’t afford that sausage anymore. We’re going to be eating beans and rice the rest of the month to make up—. Oh!” The pain went through him again and his knees went so weak he was afraid he’d fall down. The words came bursting out, an agonizing flood that he couldn’t hold back any longer.

“I can’t leave you, Mom. You’ll be all alone. Who’s going to help you if your asthma gets worse, or you get sick? Who’s going to fix the sink if it leaks again? Those people… they don’t understand that I can’t go, no matter how important they think it is. I’ll talk to them when they come. I’ll explain everything and they’ll go away and leave us alone.”

“Hush now.” Carrie’s arms were around him, and he clung to her as if it was the last time. “They probably know everything about us, not just your schooling. They’re not going to listen. They’ve been watching you for years, without us even knowing, and now they want you. You heard what Mrs. Kinney said. The government needs good minds, and you have a marvelous mind. They’ll educate you and then you’ll find work that can help make this world better. That isn’t such a bad thing, is it?”
Linden shook his head frantically. “I don’t care about that, Mom. I just want to stay home with you. And I want to finish high school, even if most of my classes are boring and my teachers are idiots.”

“Baby, I want that too, but things change and we have to learn to accept them and make the best of it.”

Linden usually hated it when his mother called him Baby, but this time it sank into him with such warmth and sweetness that he nearly cried. It reminded him how she always tried to find some good in whatever happened, no matter how bad it was. The only time he’d known her to fail was when his dad was killed at work. For a little while, he thought she’d accepted it, but when she finally broke down, he’d realized she just hadn’t absorbed the truth, that his dad wasn’t ever coming home, that they would never see him again. She’d clung to him for a long time after that, hardly letting him out of her sight whenever he was home. When he left for school each day, he’d look back from way down the block and see her standing on the stoop, watching him walk away from her.

He couldn’t go, and that was that. He was afraid of what she might do if he left her alone. They’d never talked about it, but he’d known that she wanted to die back then, during that awful time. This wouldn’t be the same, but he would be older and different when he came home for a visit. And she would be different too. Even if she was okay and managed without him, it would change her.
But she’d already changed, hadn’t she? He’d never have his mother back again, just the way she’d been before they were left alone to take care of each other. The silly things she loved to say were mostly gone. She avoided talking about things that really mattered. Right now she was more like her old self, telling him it would be okay, that they’d find a way to make it okay. This wouldn’t be okay though, not ever. How could he let their little family be torn apart and make something good out of it?

“I’m still going to try to talk them out of it when they come,” he insisted. “It may not do any good, but I have to try.”

“Linden, please don’t. You know you’ll get upset, and that will make me upset, and then, when you have to go, that’s how we’ll both remember it. It’s breaking my heart, but I’m trying to look at it the way Mrs. Kinney said, that it’s an honor. You were chosen because you’re so brilliant. You’re special. I’ve always known it. Now someone else does.”

Her pleas were weakening Linden’s resolve, but he shook his head. “I don’t care if it’s supposed to be an honor. They can let someone else have it.”

Carrie let him go, took a step back, and sighed. “Let’s not talk about it now. I fixed everything you like, and you need to eat instead of working yourself into a tizzy. Please.”
He watched her scoop a huge portion of the stir-fried rice and sausage onto his plate. He wasn’t hungry, but she clearly expected some reaction, and the smell that came wafting up to his nose was irresistible.

He took a bite and tried to smile. “It’s delicious, Mom, just like it always is, but you shouldn’t have spent the money.”

“It wasn’t that much.” She looked almost happy now. “I bought plain ground pork and added the spices. I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but it’s almost like real sausage, isn’t it? I wanted to surprise you. Is it really good?”

“It’s great. I don’t know how you do that—make ordinary stuff into something that tastes so expensive. Now we can have it more often.”

He dropped his fork as his words came back at him like a physical blow. When he looked up, he saw the misery in his mother’s face. There wouldn’t be any more meals like this. He stood up, kicked his chair back and ran up to his room. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. The words rolled around in his head until he fell asleep, his pillow soaking up the last of his tears.

It was still there when he woke up the next morning: this can’t be happening. Only two days remained before his life was over. Misery swamped him and he pulled the covers over his head. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. But it is. He threw the covers back and sat up. He was still determined to fight when the time came, but if he spent the last two days making them both miserable, he’d always regret it. Even if he had to put on an act, he’d try to make his mom feel better about the honor. He didn’t want her last memories of him, for however long before they saw each other again, to be a sour face and complaints.

When he padded into the kitchen, still barefoot and in his pajamas, and saw her face, he knew he’d made the right decision. The dark circles under her eyes and the tight lines around her mouth reminded him of that day. The cup of coffee she was holding reminded him of his first and only taste of real coffee. His dad had splurged and bought her a quarter pound of the real stuff for her birthday. Linden had been allowed a sip and had reacted with disgust. How could something that smelled so wonderful taste so awful? His mom and dad had both laughed at him.

What was in her cup now wasn’t the real stuff. It didn’t even smell like it. He wished he could buy her some before he left. But even if he had the money, where would he buy it? Months ago, there had been a news story about how almost all the coffee trees in the world were dead now, of some disease they didn’t know how to stop. Two big corporations had bought up every bean that had been produced for the last few years. Now only rich people could afford real coffee. There were other things you couldn’t get in grocery stores anymore, but that was the only one he really cared about. And chocolate.

“Morning, Mom. What do you want to do today?” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her cheek. “Let’s do something we’ll both enjoy. I promise, no more moaning and complaining. If I have to go, I’ll do my best to make you proud of me.” He wanted to turn his face away, afraid she’d see right through the lie, but he let her look her fill, and was finally rewarded with a small smile.

“Okay. I’m sure we can find something that will be fun. But first, how about some scrambled eggs for breakfast?”

“You know I can’t stand that fake stuff. Just toast is fine, and milk, if we still have any.”
“Well, then, how about real eggs?” A smile spread over her face. “Mrs. Compton’s chickens are laying well right now, and she sold me a half dozen.”

“Really real?” Linden threw his arms around her again, and the hug she returned made him want to never let go. “The good sausage last night and real eggs today—it’s going to be harder than ever to leave.” He tried to make it sound like a joke, but couldn’t quite manage it.

“I want you to have good memories to take with you, hon, things we can both remember.”

She was working so hard to keep the smile going, and Linden promised himself he’d do everything he could, to keep it there for their last two days together. “And I’ll tell you all the good stuff that happens at college.”

“Right,” Carrie said. “Promise you’ll let me know as soon as you get there. Or as soon as you can. I guess that’s one of the things you’ll have to find out about—keeping in touch. And vacations.”

They did their best to make the short time memorable, but sometimes the masks slipped. More than once, Carrie tried to keep her back turned to him, but he saw how red and swollen her eyes were.
She suggested that he say goodbye to his friends. “They must be wondering what happened to you.”

“What friends, Mom? I’m one of the outies. Besides, if anybody even noticed I wasn’t in classes, they’d just think I had a cold or something.”

“What about that girl… Cyndy? The one you’ve been helping with her essays? I thought she was a friend.”

Linden laughed at the idea. “She isn’t a friend. She doesn’t even like me. I think she hates that I can write A papers and she can’t do better than a C-. Mr. Shaw assigned us to work together, otherwise, she probably wouldn’t come near me.”

“Oh, Linden, I didn’t know it was that bad. Why haven’t you ever talked to me about it?”

He shrugged. He wished she hadn’t brought it up. It was too late for it to matter, and it was the kind of thing that just made her sad. “There wasn’t anything to talk about. You couldn’t have done anything about it. It isn’t anybody’s fault. It’s just me. I’m not super friendly, and I don’t like the things they like, so they think I’m a snob.”

Carrie sighed and took his hand. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Maybe going away to this college will be a good thing. If everybody’s picked for their brains, maybe you’ll find some friends there.” She patted his hand absent-mindedly. “It doesn’t make up for you being dragged away like this, but if some good can come out of it…” She sighed again. “I just feel so helpless?”

“I know, Mom. But it will be okay once I get used to it.” It was one more lie, but if it made her feel better, he’d lie from the time he got up in the morning until he went to bed.

The last evening was the hardest. They watched a movie that they’d seen more times than they could count, but that always made them laugh. Linden lay with his head in his mother’s lap, and was horrified when his laughter turned to hysterical tears.

Carrie brushed her fingers through his hair, over and over, making soft shushing noises and murmuring, “It’s okay love, it’s okay. Just cry it out. We’ll be together again, maybe soon. The holidays are only a few months away.”

When he could finally find the breath for speech, he tried to apologize. “I wanted it to be nice this evening. And I’m too old to be crying, anyway.”

“You’re not too old, love, and if there was ever a good time to cry, this is it.”

“I am too old. I’m almost 16,” Linden protested, and felt a movement against his head that, if he’d looked, would have been Carrie trying not to laugh. But he would also have seen tears threatening to spill down her cheeks.

They were still at the breakfast table when the knock at the door came. Linden had been picking at his food, hating to waste it, but too tied up in knots to tolerate either the smell or the taste. His heart began to pound heavily and he felt like he might vomit. Carrie put her fork down and got up from the table, very slowly, as if she was in a daze. Another knock and Linden jumped up, trying to put himself between his mother and the door.

Carrie took him by the shoulders and gently moved him aside. “You promised, Linden. Don’t make this harder than it has to be, please.”

The words had no life behind them, just like the last time she’d sounded like this—after his father’s death. “I’ll let them in, Mom. Stay here.” He wanted to tell her it would be all right, but he couldn’t get this last lie out of his mouth.

There were two of them, in uniforms that looked military and sent a vague sense of alarm through him. He stood there, gaping, until one of the men said, “Linden Thomas?”
He nodded and backed away from the door, right into his mother. He leaned into her as she put her hands firmly on his shoulders. “You’re here to take my son away from me?” Linden was surprised to hear anger in her voice, rather than sorrow or pleading.

The man closest to Linden flushed slightly. “I’m sorry, m’am. Those are our orders.” Then, to Linden, “It’s time to go, son.”

Linden’s arguments, the protests he’d intended, died. These men had no power to change anything, he realized. He was just a job they’d been given. He turned and buried his face in Carrie’s shoulder. Wrapping her arms around him, she held him tight. “Mom,” he murmured, his voice shaking. “Mom.” He couldn’t find any more words.

“Go on, Sweetheart. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Make me proud. I know your dad would be so proud of you if he could be here.”

A large hand on his shoulder pulled him gently but steadily away from her. “Let’s go, young man. We have a plane to catch.”

He didn’t really know how it happened, but they were suddenly halfway to a black car parked by the curb before he turned around for a last look. Carrie was standing on the stoop, her face blank, her hands gripping her upper arms as if she was holding herself together. When she saw Linden look back, she lifted one hand and waved to him. Then he was being pushed into the back seat of the car. With a soldier on each side of him, the car glided quietly away from everything he had ever known.