I didn’t bother to sand the plank of wood that’s holding up my protest sign, an oversight I regret as soon as the splinter sinks into my hand. We’re packed along Broadway like it’s some kind of messed-up New Year’s Eve, only we’re shouting down our new evil overlords instead of counting down with an overhyped disco ball.
Last time we did this, news drones dipped and circled through the crowd, but BurnerCorp just dismantled the first amendment. Today’s sky is clear.
I’m not a klutz or anything like that, but the splinter bite jars the sign out of my grip. My first thought is of the poor stranger whose head’s about to get clocked.
Luckily, my kid brother Benny’s got quick reflexes. He catches the sign, holds it up with a grin like he just scored a soccer goal, and hefts it back to me.
Benny’s only ten, young enough to think this whole Mega-Corp-Government-Buyout situation is going to blow over on its own.
Me? I’m sixteen. I know better.
Mom turns to make sure we’re OK. She’s got dark half-moons stamped under her eyes, but I think it makes her protest slogan — STICK IT TO THE FEES — look even more badass.
“All good, Jodi?” she mouths — or maybe shouts. I don’t know, because the thunder of voices is reverberating from skyscraper to skyscraper, chants and songs mixing together as they rise. I imagine the BurnerCorp President standing in the window of his corner office, smoking a cigar and laughing maniacally while he watches us march.
I give Mom a thumbs-up. All good.
As soon as I do, the lights in Times Square blink out. It’s enough to send a hush through the crowd. By the time people rally their chants again, every screen in Times Square is filled with Old Dude.
There are a lot of screens in Times Square.
“Compromise,” the old dude says, his voice ringing through the square. I’m rolling my eyes already. “Compromise is something BurnerCorp values. We’ve heard you. And we’re responding.”
Oh, this is rich. I look at Benny, but he mimics my thumbs-up from before, like he thinks we just won a battle.
I’ll explain to him where he went wrong, later.
I look at Mom. I’m expecting to exchange an eye-roll, a grimace, something. But she’s staring at the closest screen, neck cricked back, the reflection of Old Dude flickering in her eyes. Her lips are parted. She looks…hopeful.
“You can all start working for BurnerCorp today,” the dude says. When I look away from Mom and back to the screen, I find myself inexplicably riveted by his eyebrows. They stick out in every direction, white mixed so perfectly with the black that it looks like stripes.
I’m thinking a rich guy like that could probably afford a mini golden comb to groom those caterpillars.
“The only line in your job description,” he continues, “is silence.”
I laugh out loud. The sound echoes across the square. I’m not embarrassed to be alone. I’m pissed.
“For every day of total silence you complete, BurnerCorp will pay you in gold. Accept a WordBuster bracelet from one of our representatives, and payment will automatically be transferred to your account each day. No strings attached.”
Like hell. The whole thing is a string. It’s a manacle, is what it is.
I see orange-uniformed BurnerCorp sellouts waving from the curb, a whole line of them appearing as though they teleported here. Each of them’s cradling an oversized basket in their hands, and I can see the rubber rings of orange bracelets heaped inside.
Mom’s fixated on the screen. She licks her lips.
The woman next to her whispers to herself. Another guy frowns, twisting his hands together nervously. Most of the people around me are shifting their feet.
These people are thinking of accepting the dude’s offer.
He gives the proposal a second to sink in before he drops the cherry right on top.
“Parents, we at BurnerCorp know you face particularly trying economic circumstances. For every child under the age of twelve in your household, you may collect additional gold without the requirement of the child’s silence.”
And just like that, Mom lowers her badass sign.
BurnerCorp bought the government for, I don’t know, billions. Like the whole country was some kind of petty competition they needed to dismantle. Still, they must have been dropping gold in the piggy for a long time to make it happen.
I don’t know how they maneuvered it. I just know we woke up to the fees.
School fees, curfew fees, bike fees, park fees, grocery fees, sidewalk fees, bus fees, pet fees, you get my drift. Fees, fees, fees, fees, fees.
We outgrew our winter coats. We stopped going to school. My brother was always shivering.
Mom returns from collecting her bracelet and meets my stare head on. “I get it, Jodi,” she says, while Benny sits down in the street, abandoned signs fanned out around him on the pavement, and opens some book about space, “but what am I supposed to do?”
“Stick to your convictions?” I say.
Mom looks at Benny, who might as well be on Jupiter right now. He’s got the hood of his sweatshirt pulled tight around his head, arms wrapped around his knees as he reads. He needs a coat. And more meat on his growing-boy bones.
Mom hands me a bracelet. I guess I’m selling out, too.
School used to be loud. Music blaring and clashing from at least ten devices, personal drones zipping down the hall trying to trip someone before getting confiscated. Lockers slamming, high fives resounding, insults called back and forth.
The lockers still slam, but that’s about it. Definitely no high fives. Definitely no music.
And no voices.
We’re like a herd of zombies, biting our cheeks to keep from saying how messed up this is because our moms are hungry, our baby brothers are cold, and if we’re here instead of home it means we’re being paid to shut the hell up.
Getting here was weird, too, the city hushed. Oh, there are still people talking; but they’re mostly dressed in suits, BurnerCorp orange more often than not. If they don’t need the extra gold, they’re not saying much I want to hear, anyway.
I meet my friend Ty on the way to social studies. I haven’t seen him in months. He slings an arm around my shoulder and opens his mouth, then mimes like he lost his voice and can’t figure out why. I point to the bracelet on his wrist, and he slaps a palm to his forehead like Oh, right. Thaaaaat.
Ty is an inch or two shorter than me, so his arm’s propped up at an angle over my shoulder as we shuffle, walking-dead-like, into the
The teacher is new. All the teachers are new. They wear orange BurnerCorp jackets, which means they’re allowed to talk. I guess they get paid enough to compensate for that missing gold.
This guy looks like he could be Old Dude’s cousin, except the striped eyebrows. He’s got patches of red on his cheeks, a mole next to his nose.
BurnerCorp orange isn’t his color, but hey, we’ve all got problems.
As soon as we’re seated, Teacher Guy just starts talking. No need to quiet the class, I guess.
“The downfall of modern society began in the year 2054,” he begins, and I clench my fists so hard my knuckles crack. Next to me, Ty’s already shaking his head because he knows what Teacher Guy’s about to say.
“2054 was the year the Disruptives grew violent,” Teacher Guy says. He’s talking like that was a decade ago instead of a year, something distant that we didn’t all live through. He keeps droning on, but the rush in my ears is drowning him out.
Doesn’t matter. I’ve heard this BurnerCorp fairy tale before. But everyone knows the Disruptives were framed for those bombings. I know it especially, because my sister was one of the people who got framed.
My fingers hurt from squeezing. I feel Ty trying to catch my eye, but my vision’s a tunnel.
“You’re wrong,” I say. I don’t know which part of the fake history Teacher Guy was up to. BurnerCorp’s whole schtick is based on the lie that they were forced to save us from ourselves.
As soon as I speak, my bracelet vibrates. A pair of lights turn red.
No pay today.
“Young lady,” Teacher Guy says, sounding sympathetic, “you cannot be blamed for your upbringing. But I’m here to set the record straight. For all of you.”
“Do you believe the lies you tell?” I ask, because whatever, I’ve already broken my silence for the day. Might as well make the most of it.
“Please,” he says, like he wants to save my soul, “be reasonable. Just listen to our side of the story.”
“Your side is the only side anyone can hear,” I say, “the rest is just silence.”
Teacher Dude blinks. Then he walks to the door, opens it. He doesn’t have to say anything else. I gather my stuff and show myself out.
Mom hides her disappointment when I show up at home early with my bracelet blinking red.
When Benny comes home shivering, I’m disappointed in myself, too.
“Today we’ll review the list of heroes who put their lives on the line to capture
Disruptives,” Teacher Guy says. His eyes flicker to me, I think, but I have my hands folded on my desk. I think about Benny, and how a few days of silence can buy a new coat. Some extra food. Maybe a ball to bounce around. Thinking like that must be how Mom sleeps at night.
“Adam Corning,” Teacher Guy says. He must’ve looked up my family; he’s baiting me, because Adam Corning is the BurnerCorp crony cop who arrested my sister Jen. There were hundreds of these guys, and Teacher Guy chooses Adam Corning to talk about.
I drop my book on the floor. Teacher Guy jumps. Ty’s watching me.
“Hero,” Teacher Guy says.
“Murderer,” I respond. My bracelet blinks red.
He doesn’t kick me out today. Instead, it’s detention. Two hours of sitting at a desk while he sits placidly at his, sipping on the coffee that makes his breath stink, his already ruddy cheeks flushing with triumph.
Mom’s waiting at the kitchen table when I get home. I sit down next to her, and for a while we just stare kind of bleakly at the walls. The paint is peeling, and the only decorations we’ve got are some pieces of kid art Mom taped to the fridge so long ago that I can’t remember if they’re Benny’s or mine. Mom slips a piece of paper across the table to me.
Jodi, it reads. Written in one of Benny’s bright red markers, this could be dangerous. I remember sitting at this table with Jen, learning to play poker.
We were awful insomniacs, Jen and me. She’d shuffle the cards, impress me with her moves. The flip-flip rhythm of the cards slapping the table, a mug of mint tea to warm my hands.
I was always terrible at bluffing. Still am. “They’re rewriting history,” I say. I’ve already forfeited my payment for the day. “How can you stand it?”
Mom shakes her head slowly, pinches her lips together like she doesn’t know what to tell me. All I want is the truth. In her voice.
It’s complicated, she writes. Benny, she writes.
“I’m still a kid, too,” I say.
Mom flips the marker between her fingers. Could she not find a subtler color? A pen? Anything? She writes, slides the paper over.
Technically, Jen’s only missing. She could be in one of the BurnerCorp jails we pretend not to know about.
As for me, I’m a practical person. I know my sister isn’t coming back.
Ty passes me a note before social studies.
What’s on the menu for today’s rebellion?
The funny thing is that when I look at him, he’s got an eyebrow lifted like he’s asking me a serious question. He hasn’t joined me in breaking his silence; no one has.
Mom’s right. There really isn’t a point. We’re kids; we’re powerless. Talk about depressing.
I press a finger to my lips. I’m not messing up today. I’m not muttering a thing. I won’t so much as roll my eyes.
Teacher Guy does his best to make my compliance an uphill battle. He’s taken me on now, a personal project, all traces of false sympathy vanished. He spends the whole period talking about Adam Corning.
I’m ready for it. I don’t make a move.
Ty’s giving me the same questioning look he gave me when I was talking back every day. I want to tell him that he needs to choose. Either he’s confused because I’m speaking up, or he’s confused that I’m shutting up.
He can’t be confused about both.
Before I can write him a note to that effect, Ty opens his mouth and names Adam Corning a murderer.
His bracelet blinks red.
And just like that, there are two of us.
It’s a funny thing about silence. It feeds on itself, I guess. If you never let it in, it can’t scare you away.
One day, my brother Benny shows up in my room with the wool blanket from his bed and a pair of fabric scissors. We cut a hole for his head, and we laugh and laugh because when he shrugs it over his shoulders, he looks like a bear cub that shaved its face.
Detention is always full now. I doubt the Old Dude from the Times Square
announcement knows about it. I doubt he’d care if he did. We’re just kids. We can’t be the only ones whose bracelets light up red every day.
Teacher Guy cares. He cares a lot. And that’s a battle worth winning.
One day, Mom shows up. She opens the door to the classroom, ignores Teacher Guy’s “May I help you?” and pulls a chair up next to my desk.
And then, we talk.
This short story was written by Kate Sheeran Swed. Kate loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. You can find more of her work at katesheeranswed.com
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