The Words

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Review Chain

Submitted: May 24, 2018

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Submitted: May 24, 2018

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No one could say exactly when The Words had come back. No one ever could, they only knew that they would never stop. For every one of the Twelve Generations that New Abilene had endured, the town had been plagued by The Words.  These felonious terms, which all the town people knew to be intrinsically criminal and grounds for banishment, typically accompanied the arrival of strangers and rascals in town. They were whispered by the mouths of the mischievous and knowledgeable, the young and foolish. They served as passwords for illegal gaming rooms and speakeasies. The knowledge of these words was often a prerequisite for admittance to the dastardly gangs who preyed upon the weak and unprepared. Leif had heard a rumor that this latest outbreak had emanated from the traveling circus, which had packed up and left town not three weeks before the night where our tale begins.

Greer Bros. Traveling Circus and Medicine Show was without a doubt the highlight of the summer in New Abilene. Every year, the town’s inhabitants flocked to the foremost entertaining event any of them would see for their entire lives. Businessman and tradesman alike, bankers and blacksmiths, C.O.W. boys and drunkards, they all bought their (appropriately priced) tickets the moment they received word that the next date had been set. No one ever missed an opportunity to escape life on the frontier for a while.

With the circus, however, came trouble. As the circus attracted all manner of life, it inevitably meant an influx of undesirables, scoundrels and vagabonds, outlaws with forged citizenship papers and all types of miscreants who relished the illegal knowledge of The Words and jumped at the opportunity to spread the disease through innocent minds. Leif knew this; he knew to be extra cautious during the weeks that the circus was in town, to keep his eyes downcast and his ears guarded. You could never be certain that you weren’t about to be incriminated by a passerby, or from a piece of criminal graffiti, made with the intention of mass corruption.

It was the latter transgression to which Leif found himself victim upon his long walk home from the stables. He had, as it was custom, been kept much later than his contract required him to be. To his knowledge, he had never been sent home on time. This didn’t bother him, however; Leif appreciated the silence of the familiar, empty streets he would traverse every evening. The dark shadows of the poorly lit dirt roads were a welcome abyss in contrast to the pragmatic, break-neck pace of sunlight hours. Often, Leif would find himself crafting epic tales in his mind of The World Before. One night, he would fantasize of flying machines soaring through skies the color of blue jays and dust-clouds made of water vapor. Other nights, he would imagine fields of green growth and non-human animals living for no purpose whatsoever than just to be. These fanciful walks home were, in Leif’s opinion, the only goal for rising in the morning and sweating in the day. Leif was enjoying the climax of a particularly gripping mental saga when he saw it.

Because of the illegal nature of The Words, you couldn’t know it when you learned one, and even if the knowledge was dancing around in your head, it would still never be confirmed unless you were foolish enough to experiment with your vocabulary. Despite this, Leif knew with intuitive certainty (for why else would someone bother to paint it so haphazardly, and why else would it look so sinister?) that he was looking dead at one of The Words. Upon the eastern outer wall of Scoot’s General Store, in bold red letters, it hung in Leif’s line of sight like a death sentence:

 

 

M E R C Y

 

In the mandatory public education system of The New Nation, it is taught that when the people are not pragmatic and efficient, but panic-prone and reactionary, that they were no longer their true selves, but merely biological slaves to their nervous systems. Standing before the glaring red stare of his linguistic demise, Leif knew (or would have known, had he the luxury of time for further reflection) this childhood lesson, this pillar upon which thousands of New Nation communities like New Abilene endured, to be unequivocally false; Leif had never been clearer of mind or surer of his destiny.

As he sprinted the rest of his trajectory home, he knew he had to stay away from others, even his family, at least or a while. He could not trust his mind, and even less his tongue, which was known to betray even the most disciplined of citizens. He knew his life would never be the same; there were those, condemned to the knowledge of the evil and the corrupt, who, in their despair, conceded to be criminal and therefore Outlawed: banished to the radioactive wastes against which New Abilene survived, condemned to wander the desert until starvation, sickness, or wild mutated beasts overtook you. The C. O. W boys would see to it that you never reached the safety of New Abilene’s borders again. But this was not Leif; he would not suffer to surrender. He would fight the knowledge.

Leif!”

The crack of an unexpected cry rang through the night air and shocked his already alert senses and his pace quickened. It was only the timbre of his mother’s voice that caused him to pause and turn.

Leif! Leif! They took him! He knows!”

He had caught up to his mother now, and could see she was clad in only a simple nighty. Had it been daylight, he would have noticed spots of blood following the path of her bare, cracked feet.

“Ma, what are you doing out here? Calm d-I can’t understand you!”  He placed firm grips upon the trembling, frail arms of his hysterical mother in an effort to discern her words.

“Jac! They arrested Jac! Oh-oh, Leif, oh no, oh…”

  Thick tears rolled down her face and her eyes pleaded with Leif (or perhaps someone else entirely) to alter her reality and make terrible things go away.

“ What happened?! What did he do Ma?!”

Her glistening eyes widened in horror as she forced the words out between sobs... “He knows, Leif. One of those horrible Words…someone taught him…I don’t know where...they’re going to Outlaw him…”

For the second time that night, Leif broke into a mad dash, determined to fight. This time, however, he ran not to gain security, but to retrieve it for Jac, and though he was terrified, his concern for his brother countered his fears where concern for his self would not.

The constable’s precinct station was packed to the brim when Leif arrived, sweaty and panting. It was obvious that there had been a raid. There were so many bodies in the small building that it was, at first glance, difficult to determine the captives from the C.O.W. boys (until, at least, you got close enough to notice the shock bracelets around the captives’ wrists, or the gold star badges that read: Certified Outlaw Wrangler.)

“yessir, ‘bout thirty uh’ thuh’ sumbeetches…” A C.O.W boy in a faded corduroy jacket conversed with a superior in the doorway of the lobby. Disregarding them, Leif shoved his way in, searching the sea of faces (some jubilant, some defeated) for his older brother or Constable Lewis, who would surely sort this out. Jac couldn’t be outlawed.

As if in cruel mockery of this determined thought, the universe placed Jac within Leif’s line of sight, and with this image declared that his older brother would die wandering the desert: upon Jac’s bare chest (his shirt had been removed to bear his great and terrible shame) was a freshly branded tattoo:

 

 

P A U C I T Y

 

Jac, you fool, Leif thought to himself as he pushed through the commotion to find someone, anyone, who could end this nightmare. He could not lose his brother, not the way he had lost his sister.

 

“Constable Lewis! CONSTABLE LEWIS!” A desperate roar unassociated with teenage boys burst from his lips and enveloped the room and all its inhabitants. Despite their previous occupations, the collective crowd stopped to turn and stare at the source.

The old constable, who sat with feeble posture behind an ornately adorned cedar desk amidst the towering congregation, understood immediately what Leif was there for, and sadly shook his head and raised his hand. “You know the law, son. So did your brother.”

“HE DIDN’T! HE COULDN’T! HE DIDN’T KNOW! He...it’s not his fault….” Leif pleaded with the old man, but as he shouted, the energy left his body. The constable never raised his voice, or broke his solemn, understanding gaze. Leif scrambled his mind for some rhetoric, some sound reasoning or tempting bargain with which he could leverage his brother’s destiny. It was not right, he contended to himself, that in this New Nation, there existed no institution or protocol for avoiding the administering of misery and suffering in the face of unintentional or accidental mistakes. Leif pondered and pondered. As the old constable led him out into the street, a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, he pondered. As he made his way home, feet dragging in the cold dirt, he pondered. Even as he made his way into his family’s silent home, as the screen door clanged shut behind him, as he drug himself up the creaking wooden stairs, he pondered, with his creative, fanciful mind, what force or entity or methodology could have saved his brother from the long journey he was no doubt setting out on at this very moment, the jab of cattle prods at his back, out into the great empty nothing. Leif pondered his brother’s theoretical salvation, but he could not think of a word for it.


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