Wow, this is… well, awkward.
Here’s the thing. I wrote this stupid short story last year. It’s made it to the second reading and decision round for more magazines and publishers than I care to admit to, but never beyond that. So, let me say right away, I have absolutely no misunderstandings about the quality of this story. If it was wonderful, it would be published somewhere besides here.
I guess this is my official foray into unofficially self-publishing.
Secondly, the reason I’m doing this is because it really bothers me to see how much work I put into this short story, and know that unless I put it here, it’s dead on the vine. I know it probably doesn’t bother anyone else, but it bothers me. Therefore I’m going to put it on this website because I’d prefer it not to rot away forgotten in the black recesses of my computer. And, hey, why not show all you fine folk what a half-baked author I am?
So here it is, “Purity”, the short story I wrote, that Zachary Jernigan helped me refine to its imperfect, rather unedited current state. In all reality, I appreciate Jernigan for all of his help, and I absolutely loved how much he boosted my confidence, and taught me during the process of writing and refining this.
I’m going to go ahead and post this story before I lose my confidence… which is almost certainly going to happen.
Basically what this really boils down to is the fact that I promised myself if I didn’t get this stupid piece of crap story published by the end of February, I’d put it on my website just to shut myself up. It’s March 1, and thus, time for me to call my own bluff.
This is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done.
Welcome to my mind.
By Sarah Chorn
Caleb was my best friend, though it was less of a friendship and more of a jealousy-fueled codependency. His mother worked for Purity making designs for the domes. She always got the latest technology and best upgrades for free from her work.
Caleb’s dome was like a castle, huge and sprawling. The walls changed hue to suit a person’s mood. The temperature acclimated to please the people inside. The air smelled like flowers. Caleb’s mother was always gone, so he basically raised himself. I yearned for his independence. I hated him for his posh dome, and I loved him because he let me spend time there.
Caleb didn’t care that my family was dirt poor, or that my parents had to work overtime for weeks on horrible farms to afford the most recent tech upgrades. My family’s dome was a crumbling, windowless, ugly brown half-circle hidden behind a bunch of overgrown trees that hadn’t seen a pruner in generations.
None of that mattered to him. I had a father and he didn’t. The grass is always greener, as the saying goes.
When I was fifteen, my mother and father contracted another insemination. We stood, a family of three for the last time, in a sterile hospital room watching as the doctor inserted a tiny tube into a dish of clear liquid. Mom smiled proudly. My father smiled back at her, and it was done. In nine months I’d have a little brother stealing all the attention.
Even though my little brother was still growing in the tube, I already resented my parents for the attention they heaped on him. I loathed my brother for making our already impoverished situation that much more uncomfortable.
Caleb was mad at me because of how poorly I was handling the impending change in my life. When I asked why he was upset, he’d shake his head, his brown hair falling around his dark eyes and say, “You don’t understand how lucky you are, Hannah.” My parents were all stars and happiness, completely ignorant to the fact that their poverty made me a social pariah; and my only friend didn’t understand, or care, about my emotional torture.
Between school and Caleb, I soon forgot that I had a brother on the way. Time passed in the fleeting way it passes for the young and stupid. Soon my brother was done developing and we had another mouth we couldn’t afford to feed, in a dome that was too small to hold all of us. As I dealt with my new life, another milestone appeared.
At sixteen, all youth in the habitat were tested. This was our one chance to secure a lucrative future, so teenagers usually spent anxious weeks studying and preparing. However, I had been so absorbed in the chaos my brother’s birth heaped upon me that I completely forgot about it.
The morning of the test dawned far too bright, and far too early. I said goodbye to my family, knowing that, no matter what happened, it would be a few years before I saw them again. Caleb and I walked to the testing center together in tense silence. For the next few hours, we sat in identical terminals answering questions on hygienic paper with pencils that would be incinerated as soon as we left. I heard forty other sixteen-year-olds scratching out answers along with me. I could taste the acrid anxiety filling the testing room. When it was over, we were directed to stand in a line, all of us the mandatory two feet apart, while we waited to learn about the next phase of our lives. No one spoke. There seemed to be nothing to say.
We were divided into groups. Caleb was lumped into the tech group, which surprised neither of us, though I knew he secretly wanted nothing to do with tech. I was sent to agriculture. We would both follow in our parent’s damned footsteps.
Caleb’s group looked so posh and put together. In contrast, my group was obviously poor. It showed in our out-of-date nanobots, tattered clothing, and the air of rejection that hung on us like a bad perfume. We protected our anger and disappointment by hiding behind a wall of stony silence.
I said a hasty goodbye to Caleb as an instructor led us down the hall and into a large bus. A medibot positioned us all so we wouldn’t be touching. A mask clipped on our faces so we wouldn’t share the same air. Once we were examined and our sterility was approved, we started moving toward our future.
Most residents never saw the outer edges of the habitat where the agricultural lands were located. It seemed like people were afraid that visiting the farms would spread our poverty like a virus. Agriculture was where the poor and criminal worked. Rumor had it that Caleb’s father had not washed his hands for the proper amount of time and someone turned him in. If his father was still alive, he was probably working on a farm somewhere with the other criminals. That rumor was most of the reason why Caleb was a social outcast. The stench of the unwashed tainted him forever.
The farms were on a sprawling, circular swath of land several miles wide that butted against the cold glass wall of the Purity habitat. Despite the open sky above me, the land felt oppressive. It was flat and endless. Wind never stirred the cornhusks, and the sun was merciless, beating me with an unforgiving fist. I felt like I was standing in the middle of an ocean of green. One wrong move and I would drown.
I was assigned to the cornfields, where I was paired with a partner. James was a tall, dark, and handsome eighteen-year-old who had worked the land for several months and could show me the ropes. He positively wafted anger every time he moved. I was almost instantly infatuated with him.
At first we rarely spoke. James showed me how to pick corn and where to put it. After that, my twelve-hour days were full of brooding silence. Too much time alone with my thoughts helped me sew seeds of bitterness about my unfair fate that I reverently cared for.
The weeks rolled silently by, and then, for no apparent reason, James decided I was worth talking to. The awkward ice between us thawed with four words. “Come eat with me,” he said, his rumbling baritone sliding over my body like the darkest silk.
“Okay,” I plopped down beside him and we ate corn in silence under the stars. A fire popped merrily at our feet. I fell asleep there, two feet away from him, wondering what it would feel like to touch another person. Was his skin as smooth as mine, or rough with work?
A few days later while picking corn in that pitiless field, James decided to speak to me again. “Did you know that a world exists outside of Purity?” His voice surprised me, making me jump and curse, spilling half of my corn with a hasty kick. It lay like glistening nuggets of gold.
A shrug. “I was there.”
“That’s impossible. You know as well as I do that the germs killed off most of humanity,” I muttered as I picked up my spilled corn.
His hand wrapped around my arm almost painfully. His dark eyes burned with frightening passion. “I was there,” he hissed through bared teeth.
“You’re touching me.” No one touched in the habitat. We all stayed a careful two feet apart, minimum. Contact spread germs and put people in jail. It made people disappear. I yanked my arm away and wiped it on my pant leg furiously, as though I could wipe off his touch. I hated the way my hand shook. I was already planning a twenty-minute sterility shower.
“Out there people touch all the time.” He turned back to picking his corn like what had just happened wasn’t a big deal. Like it wouldn’t change my life forever. I wondered if my parents would notice if I disappeared.
Would Caleb care?
“So why aren’t you still there?”
A sigh. “I was born here, but I snuck out a few months ago. Why else do you think I’m here? My family was poor-“
“It was just my mom and I. I was sick of being here, so I left. I found an apple tree and brought back a basket full of them. They were fat, and red. The juice dripped down my chin when I bit into them. They tasted unreal, so much more intense than anything I’ve tasted in here. My mother was furious and the police found out. They took her away and brought me here. I’m being punished for bringing my mother food. Can you believe that? ”
I picked my corn in silence, letting one ear fall after another. The soft plop was the only sound other than the rustle of fabric as we both worked. “Are there others out there?”
“What about the germs?”
“What about them? I wasn’t there long, but I saw people touching. It makes me wonder. We are taught that the habitat is here to protect us, but I’m not sure it does. Have you ever wondered why we have hospitals, medibots or doctors?” He kept his eyes focused on the stalks of corn, but his voice was dark and filled with untapped anger.
“People get injured. Broken arms. Smashed thumbs.” My mind was racing.
“If Purity really protects us, and germs are really eradicated, then why do we have sick rooms? Sterility showers? Cleansed air? Why are people who leave the dome found and punished if they return? If there are no germs, what are people so afraid of?” He paused meaningfully. “If germs wiped out everything, how come people are still living on the outside?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“Of course not. You lived a sheltered life.” His snort was filled with derision. The conversation was over.
James had effectively stirred up my garden of bitterness and sewed in seeds of confusion. I knew that Purity had been erected to preserve and protect what remained of humanity. Our nanobots kept us clean. Our domes provided another wall of protection. Every rule we had was in place to preserve our safety and security against those things we couldn’t see. No one touched, because touching cultivated and spread germs. Kids didn’t play outside, they played in sterile rooms alone and were sanitized before they re-entered society. Lawlessness happened when people didn’t follow specific rules that protected their health and the health of those around them. My whole life was built around germs, and how rapidly they could spread and harm anyone and everyone.
Now James was making me question the foundation on which our society had been built, and my rebellious, angry teenage heart embraced it. I peppered him with questions while we picked corn day after day. I started dreaming of an outside world where the scent of blossoms was carried on a gentle wind, rather than pumped through vents. What did wind feel like? Did rain taste differently than our decontaminated chemical bath inside of Purity? These were revolutionary thoughts, and I loved James for them.
The weeks grew into months, and we were finally given a free day. I expected to spend it sleeping, but a sleek black car stopped beside the field and my childhood friend emerged, blinking his eyes to adjust to the bright light. I drank him in. Caleb was taller than I remembered, pale with skinny arms and legs. He smiled at me that familiar lopsided smile I had seen so often. We said our hellos; the two feet between us stretching like a gulf. I suddenly realized how terribly I had missed him.
He looked at the rows and rows of corn longingly and then sank to the dirt, his head tilted to the sky. “I sit in a dark room by myself and look at code all day,” he finally admitted. “I’d rather pick corn.”
“Couldn’t your mom get you a better position?”
Caleb shrugged. “What’s better? I’d rather be here, but our fate was sealed with that exam. It’s going to kill me, Hannah. It’s been weeks since I’ve said a word to another living person.”
“I thought everyone loved tech.”
“No one who works in tech loves it.”
Silence stretched between us like a living creature. My mind was racing. Caleb was miserable, and no matter what our differences were, I hated that misery more than I hated anything. He was my dearest friend. He deserved a life he loved. He deserved freedom. Now I knew just how to give it to him.
I told him about James and the outside world. I talked in soft tones that wouldn’t be overheard, making sure I kept a careful distance between us. I let the story slip out of my mouth and watched as Caleb absorbed it, his eyes widening, his fists clenching and unclenching nervously in his lap. Finally, when I was done, he whispered, “Why did you tell me that?”
“Because we can leave here. We can leave the habitat and live outside. There is a whole world out there that we can explore. We can be who we want, and do what we want.” Oh, how foolishly ideological I was.
He shook his head. “Nothing is that simple. You only have the word of a convict that any of that even happened. If we do get outside, what’s to say we won’t die? This habitat was built for a lot of reasons, and just for fun wasn’t one of them.”
“Aren’t you even curious?” I hated how my voice cracked emotionally over the last word. Caleb studied me for a minute and shook his head.
“Even if leaving was even possible, do you think you could give up everything you know?” He licked his lips and turned his face back toward the sun. “Hannah, don’t do anything stupid. I know you hate picking corn, but it’s not worth risking everything for. We both have lives here. We can’t risk them on a convict’s story.” The black car was back. It honked once signaling an end to our reunion. We said our goodbyes before it took Caleb away, kicking up a cloud of dirt as it disappeared.
A few days later, I kissed James. The fact that touching was forbidden just made it that much sweeter. A few weeks later we had sex under the stars, hidden by rows and rows of unyielding corn. After that night my thoughts often turned from my own problems, to memories of our nights together, a tangle of sweat and limbs. Heat would flood my cheeks, our eyes would meet, and my heart would flutter.
Our newfound intimacy also made me realize how often James went missing at night.
Later, when we were both getting ready for another day of hard work, I heard James make a horrible, wet sound in his throat. “What was that?” James made the noise again, louder this time. He was bent double, spit flying from his mouth, his skin white and drawn. He looked awful.
“It’s a cough,” he finally said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“A cough?” I tested out the word. “What is a cough?” I asked.
“It’s something horrible,” James said softly. I didn’t understand. I picked up my basket and moved deeper into the field, trying to leave my worry behind me. I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was about to destroy everything I had ever known.
That night when we made love he coughed the whole time.
Soon after that, I started coughing, too. My nanobots were moving at a frantic pace, unable to keep me clean as my body fought against its very first virus. In a panic, the overseers pulled us off the fields, and sent us by private bus to the large white hospital downtown. We were covered in plastic suits and ushered inside, coughing and hacking. Nursebots led us into two separate sterile rooms where we were poked and prodded. Outside I heard someone else coughing.
Days passed in that windowless room. I had an IV in my arm pumping fluids into my body. Medibots cared for me. Police were stationed at my door. I was a prisoner in the truest form. When the door opened on those rare occasions that anyone entered, I saw a hallway packed full of sick, coughing, dying people with handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths to catch blood. Each person was a weight on my soul. I had done this. In my ignorance and my love of rebellion, I had done this.
Eventually the hospital grew too crowded and James and I were forced to share a room. He was paying for his sins. He looked yellow and used oxygen to help him breath. He was obviously dying, and dying men didn’t deserve anger, they deserved pity. “I’m sorry,” James whispered when he saw me. He reached out and squeezed my hand. His grip was loose and his skin was clammy. “I’m so sorry for this.”
“How?” It was the only word I could manage. I could barely hear it over the rattling in my chest.
James coughed, a wet, horrible sound that echoed off the walls around us. I saw red flecks of blood when he moved his hand. “I lived on the outside for months, Hannah,” he finally said. “I would sneak back out almost every night. I purposefully brought it in with me.”
“Purity is evil,” he hissed. “A medibot found a tumor in me. Fucking cancer. I can’t help that I have cancer. I didn’t ask for it. The police didn’t care. They kicked me out anyway because cancer is a disease and diseases are illegal. Diseases degrade the security of the habitat. He left my mom to fend for herself. I got sick and snuck it in so everyone could feel what I felt. There’s nowhere to run anymore. Purity is collapsing.” He turned his back on me. His anger was repulsive, and he would die nursing it.
An interesting thing happens when an illness is introduced to a society that has no germs. We learned that our immune systems were basically nonexistent. Our technology had been developed for healthy bodies, not sick ones. We had lived so long without illness, we had lost all knowledge of how to treat it. Nearly everyone was sick, and our ignorance sentenced them to death. James had started a fire and used my infatuation as a tool to spread it.
James was the first to die, and after him, thousands followed. The bodies were burned. The sickness mutated, and those that survived the first strain of the virus were inevitably killed in the second. The few, like myself, who managed to live through it all, were so weak and ravished that we were meek as babes. Our technology had failed. Our world had been ripped apart around us, but there was no anarchy. We were too weak and too few for anything so grand.
I was known as Patient 1. Those still alive had determined that Patient 1 needed to be made an example of. The only question was when it would happen, and how. My days were spent in my hospital bed praying for death. But death never came.
Time passed in a confused mixture of dreams and reality. Then suddenly Caleb darkened the doorway of my room. His face covered in a mask; he was draped in a white suit that made him look otherworldly. His eyes were full of sadness. My relief was overpowering. I felt a tear slide slowly down my cheek to fall from my nose and plop on my pillow.
Caleb pulled a chair up beside my bed and let out a long, low groan. I reached toward him and he backed away like I was made of poison. I couldn’t blame him. “Hannah, your family is dead.” His voice was flat and emotionless. Cold. “All of this happened because of you. Everything has been destroyed. So many people died. Purity is no longer safe. Maybe that’s what you wanted. I know you were miserable. Was this your crowning achievement? Should I applaud you?”
I shook my head, a cough ripped through me. I felt like I was being torn in half. Blood dotted the white sheet that covered me, red and accusing. It was the color of sin.
“I don’t think you realized that we wouldn’t be able to cope with disease. I don’t think anyone did. We’ve been safe for so long, but safety has its price, and we’ve paid it with our ignorance.”
“Caleb,” I rasped. Tears carved a river of pain on my cheeks.
“We need to rebuild, Hannah.”
“I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I didn’t know. It was James.”
“Yes, I know you two were great friends.” He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at me. This wasn’t my childhood friend. This was a stranger. For the first time since he arrived I realized that Caleb wasn’t here to visit. He was here as the hand of justice and he would bestow my fate upon me. “I did research on your boyfriend after I left the cornfield. He was dying from cancer, Hannah. The police kicked him out because he was unstable and a danger to society. He snuck back in somehow and assaulted his mother. He threw a basket of apples at her. They hit her head and killed her. He was a psychopathic murderer.”
A sob tore out of me. “Caleb, please, I didn’t know.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. The rules were in place to keep us safe. You blatantly ignored them and look at what happened. If you had stayed away from him like you were supposed to, James would have died from his disease and no one else would have been affected. We’ve lost seventy-five percent of our population, Hannah. In order to move on, we need closure. I wanted to see you one last time.” Sadness filled his eyes before he gained control of himself and steeled his expression.
“What are you going to do to me?” My hands were shaking, betraying the fear that lay coiled like a snake in my belly.
“We are kicking you out.”
“Caleb, no!” I wanted to shout at him, but the words fell like cold stones from my parched lips, barely making a sound. I didn’t know that James was sick. I didn’t ask for any of this. I was just an angry teenage girl in love with rebellion and sucked into something that was deeper than anything she could understand. I wanted to go back to the way things were before we took that horrible test. I wanted to go home and hate my parents again. I wanted to be jealous of Caleb again.
Caleb flicked a finger and two large men in matching white suits entered my room and stuck a needle in my arm. I barely had time to register the pain before sleep claimed me.
I woke up on the outside looking in. Rain fell in diagonal sheets. My clothes were stuck to me. I was shivering from the cold. I stuck my tongue out and tasted water, pure and lacking chemicals. It was one last, perfect gift.
“It’s odd, looking in.” Caleb was nothing more than a silhouette pressed against the wall of the dome, trying to puzzle out what lay beyond the wet glass that obscured our old lives.
“Why are you here?” My teeth chattered, turning the words into a staccato mush.
He turned and fixed me with his steely gaze. He wouldn’t ever forgive me; I read that truth in his eyes. “You are all I have now.”
“You hate me.”
“So why are you here? Why did you leave?”
“I’m so fucking lonely without you,” he said. A cough doubled me over. The salty, iron taste of blood filled my mouth. Caleb took my hand. His skin was smooth and warm; his grip was strong but not painful. He gently turned me away from the dome. “You were a weapon, Hannah, and even weapons should be cared for.”
The rain turned the blood on my hand into tears that slid from my fingers to cover his. We walked away from our old lives and into the unknown.
© Sarah Chorn, 2014