I was on my energy board when they came. They didn’t knock. They just came in, men in black uniforms. Enforcers. I shut off my board and stumbled, hitting my hip against the metal sidebar. They didn’t say anything but held up their hands in a way that told me to stop and not come any closer. My meter was only halfway to the finish point. Mother had gotten off her sleeping mat when she heard them at the door and stood there, head down. How tangled her hair looked, gray and lifeless.
They asked which sleeping mat was hers. She pointed to mine. I started to say, “No that’s mine,” but she gave a little shake of her head so I kept quiet. One of them rolled up the mat and put it under his arm. The other one tied short, dirty ropes to Mother’s wrists. I knew not to cry in front of the Enforcers but tears burned hot behind my eyes.
Mother hadn’t done her duty walking since I was paired with Jeremy two days ago. She had stayed curled up on her sleeping mat, her face to the wall, her back a row of bony knobs. I had walked both my board and hers those two days so our meters would register at Central Authority for two people. That was the only way to get food for both of us.
Maybe they could tell one person was doing two different meters because the meters registered at different times. Who knows? I’ve seen too many things over the almost eighteen years I’ve spent on this Earth to ever doubt the Authority’s power.
Mother went quietly, shuffling her feet across the rough concrete floor. She looked back at me and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t teach you enough . . . . I love you.” There was a scratchy sound to her voice as though the words were stuck inside her. “I’m sorry, Emmeline.” I didn’t know what she meant and I didn’t have time to ask. The Enforcers, one on each side of her, tugged on the ropes. She looked weak and shrunken between them.
I watched through the window slit as they pulled Mother up the steps of the bus-box. How trapped she looked sitting between them. Six other men, large and muscular in orange uniforms, stood in their harnesses. The Transport Team. The bus-box lurched forward as the men began walking in unison. I watched until it disappeared around the curve past our Compound.
Then I ran after her. The Gatekeeper didn’t see me; he was making rounds at the far end. I ran as fast and as hard as I could along the ridge between the ruts in the dirt road, the muscles in my legs clenching and unclenching like fists, until I could see the bus-box.
I slipped to the side of the road, crouching down, creeping closer. The bus-box turned onto a narrower road, hidden by trees. I never knew that road was there.
The green flag marking the area was barely visible. Beyond it was a building I had never seen before. Bigger than any Living Space and a deeper, darker gray than the other buildings. No window slits, just blank, forbidding walls.
The bus-box stopped in front of the building’s only door. Through the trees I could see the Enforcers walk Mother to the door. Dust swirled around her ankles as she shuffled. The odor here seemed familiar but was much more potent.
Mother still had the ropes on her wrists and the Enforcers were holding them tightly. She turned, looked at me as though she knew I’d been following her the whole time, and somehow was able to raise one hand to touch her chest, her heart. That motion lasted only a second. I’ll remember it for a lifetime.
A hand reached out and pulled Mother inside. The door slammed shut.
While the Enforcers got back on the bus-box, I hid behind a tree and watched until they disappeared. Then I leaned my head against the tree and beat my fists against the rough bark until they bled.
* * *
I had never been alone before. Mother never allowed that. Never. Jeremy was not yet back from work. Around me was only gray. Gray walls, gray floor. A cold concrete square. One window slit on each of the four walls and the single wooden door that led outside to the Compound’s common area, a packed dirt space with a gate, guarded by a Gatekeeper. Inside, the space was divided into three areas. To one side of the door was the eating space with a counter to place our nourishment cubes and water bottles on. On the other side, the washing-up room with its limp privacy curtain. In the back was the sleeping area, with our mats on the floor and hooks on the wall to hang our uniforms. Along the wall on the right was the energy output area. This is where our boards stood, side by side.
These were all the spaces where Mother used to be.
I walked into the sleeping area. Mother’s mat, just long enough and wide enough for one person, covered with the same frayed fabric as the privacy curtain, was stretched over a foam mattress four inches thick on the cold concrete floor. Her blanket had fallen onto the floor. I picked it up and held it to my face, breathing deeply. The fabric was rough and cold, but it smelled of Mother, her skin, her hair. I could see the imprint of her body on the mat. Where her head had been, her shoulders, her hips. I ran my fingertips over the mat, feeling those spaces. Then I curled up in the imprint and pulled her blanket over me. It was safe to cry now.
* * *
There was nothing to do but get back on my board and walk. Create energy. Create energy. Create energy. Get my meter to finish. The sound of my feet pounding on the board and another sound, a low hiss, as the friction and heat of the board is siphoned away through a small hose connected to an outlet in the wall and then into the energy download bar in front of our space. Every Space has a download bar like ours, but the bars belong to the Central Authority. They own everything. They use the energy to supply our needs. Our nourishment cubes, our clothing, everything. They call it the Energy Neutral Policy. I hate their big titles.
Mother once told me that producing energy was one of the two things the Republic cared about most. The other thing was producing healthy babies. Being productive and being reproductive. The most valuable Citizens were both. Mother said I was one of the most valuable. I didn’t know what she meant at the time.
The half-hour-till-dusk bell tolled. Jeremy would be home after dusk. We’d eat our nourishment cubes together, drink our water rations. I didn’t think I’d be hungry, but I was already thirsty. I noticed that the needle of my energy meter had moved past halfway.
When they had paired me with Jeremy, Mother refused to get off her sleeping mat to meet him. Men with mustaches from Central Authority got off the bus-box first and walked in lockstep to our door, legs moving straight and stiff as though they had no knees. They had a new headscarf for me, white trimmed in black, and they turned their backs as I removed my black headscarf, my widow scarf, and put this one on. Then Jeremy, escorted by an Enforcer, got off the bus-box. He was thin, scrawny, and his skin was pale.
They did the pairing ceremony, the exchange of vows, in front of our Living Space: I will honor the Republic. I will produce energy for the Republic. I will produce Citizens for the Republic. Praise be to the Republic. Then we all made the circle sign, with our thumb and forefinger held against our foreheads, to salute the Republic.
The men went back to the bus-box and left. Jeremy and I were officially paired. We went into our Living Space. He looked around as though he had never seen one before. He pulled the privacy curtain aside and glanced into the washing-up area. He looked out of the window slits, going from one to the other, pacing back and forth with nervous little steps. Finally he stopped pacing and leaned against the counter.
“I wanted a virgin. And what did I get?” He glanced at me. “You. And an old lady.” He glanced at Mother.
She sat up slowly and pointed her finger at him. I noticed for the first time how old her hands looked, how her finger curved like a claw. She looked sad and started to say something but didn’t.
Jeremy said nothing else, but his eyes narrowed and his lips pinched together. Mother lay back down and never did speak to him.
That was two days ago.
I didn’t teach you enough. What did she mean? What didn’t I know?
Sometimes she talked a lot. Her voice had been like a metronome. Tick, talk, tick, talk. It filled our space. She scratched at her skin as she talked. Fingernails digging into her arms, her ankles. Making little sore spots bigger, crusted with blood.
“It wasn’t always like this,” she would say.
“We had our own farm once. Land. Rolling hills. Green fields. We raised animals, crops. We owned property. It was ours.”
“What happened to it? Where was it?”
“Far away. It was far away. Laws changed. The Authority owns all the property now.”
Why, I wanted to ask, did the laws change? But I didn’t ask her, didn’t interrupt the stories. If I did, she would shut down and turn her face to the wall. That would be the end of her talking.
“We kept animals on the farm,” she said.
Imagine that! Keeping animals! At every Social Update Meeting they remind us that animals are sacred and belong to the Earth, not to people. Animals are protected. We have to recite, in unison, the Pledge of Animals.
I pledge allegiance to the Earth and to the sacred rights of the Earth and to the Animals of the Earth.
Just last month a man was dragged by the Enforcers to the front of the Social Update Meeting and made to kneel before the Authorities. They accused him of running over a snake with his energy bicycle. I think he tried to say it was an accident, but his voice was shaking and hard to hear. His head was down, his chin almost on his chest. He looked small and old, kneeling that way. They put the ropes on his wrists and led him away.
Everyone at the meeting kept their eyes on their shoes. They looked tired and pale and wilted. I think every single person watching knew that could just as well have been them on any given day, for any given reason.
Mother said taking him away was wrong, just wrong. But she didn’t say it very loudly.