Sara ran her fingers along the spine of the thick, black book. She had never seen a paper book before. A civilization as advanced as theirs had little need of paper. She had found the book deep under Love’s bed wrapped in some old clothes; the girls were playing their favorite game, hide-and-seek. Sara couldn’t make out the words in the darkness and she couldn’t risk tapping the under-bed light on or Love would find her. She cracked open the book and put her cheek on the cool, delicate pages. She sniffed the book. It smelled like her Great-Aunt Linda – old and a little musty. She wondered where Love found such a thing, and why she kept it. Her stomach felt hot at the thought of breaking a Not Allowed. She heard Love’s footsteps by the bedroom door. “Saaaara, where aaaarre you?” Love giggled and pounced on the bed. Sara hastily put the book back and rolled out from under the bed, forcing a giggle as she admitted defeat. She wouldn’t ask Love about the book. She knew she couldn’t tell anyone about the book, not even her mother, or Love would be punished. Sara could never hurt her best friend.
“Call Doctor Aliah,” Sara commanded, squeezing her left earlobe to activate her implant for the call.
“Health and Wellness Center, Amie speaking, how may I direct your call?”
Sara squinted at the brightness in the receptionist’s voice.
“Hi, this is Inhabitant Sara Todd. I’m uh, looking for an afternoon appointment with Dr. Aliah to correct my lenses,” then she added, “Class 3.5.”
“Let me help you with that,” Amie gushed. “I have a three-thirty on the seventh, or a two o’clock on the tenth.”
Sara flicked her schedule up on her lenses, but all she could she was static. She tried blinking to refresh it. An image popped up that Sara had never seen before.
An electronic note from Love with today’s date.
“I’m not gone,” it read, “come find me. I’m with the Naturals. We have found the Better Way. Come find me.”
“Are you there, Sara?” the receptionist’s voice burst Sara’s concentration like a bubble. Sara gulped and the note vanished, her schedule in its place.
“The tenth,” she managed, “the tenth is good.”
Later during her first class at Assigned Learning, she puzzled over the note while the teacher droned on about the First Inhabitant.
Technically, the First Inhabitant no longer existed, and was therefore Not Allowed according to Lesser Not Allowed number twelve: Do not speak of the dead. The Pinnacle, the governing council of the city – of whom the Supreme Inhabitant was the head – got around this rule by erecting a life-sized statue of the First Inhabitant and every Supreme Inhabitant after. This way the students could learn of their brilliant leaders without committing a crime. One year a student asked why only the Supreme Inhabitants could cheat a Not Allowed. He was absent from class after that. Nobody asked why.
The First Inhabitant was a doctor. He lived with a group of people whose pursuit was the longevity of life through body modifications. They invented the first crude implants and founded the city of Barter that Sara now lived in. It was more of a town back then.
Sara’s thoughts drifted back to the note. It had mentioned the Better Way, something she and Love invented when they were twelve, bored with learning and big with ideas and dreams.
The Better Way was a simple wish list, a child’s fanciful daydream. There would be no implants or checkups with needles or sore eyes or stinging fingers. They would not be dizzy for days after new ear implants. They would not need to memorize The Five rules or any other Not Allowed’s and they could have whatever job they wanted. They could leave the city. They would even have dessert for breakfast if they liked.
And they would find the animals. Only a few animals remained in the city, and the Inhabitants were not permitted to see them unless assigned to care for them. The closest Sara had come to seeing a cow was the burger on her plate.
Sara’s father whispered stories to her at bedtime about things his father had told him at bedtime, stories passed down from generation to generation. It was Not Allowed, to be sure, and if Sara’s mother ever found out, she would turn him in for telling such lies, but Sara treasured those stories.
Her favorite story was about chickens. One of Sara’s ancestors had been a farmer. He raised chickens, cows, pigs, and horses. He had four cats and three dogs. He even had a few goats. Sara thought that was a funny word – goat. Her father would say it over and over again until it no longer sounded like a word and Sara’s laughter threatened to wake her mother. Then she would beg him for the chicken story.
The farmer had a little girl, just like Sara. Her job was to feed the chickens and collect the eggs while avoiding Solomon, the mean-spirited rooster. Solomon’s black heart delighted in chasing the little girl, pecking at her and digging her with his sharp spurs. One day the little girl had courage. She picked up a stick and fought back. When Solomon came towards her, evil eyes agleam, she clubbed him so hard he flew to the other side of the coop. Solomon walked with a limp ever after, but never bothered her again.
Sara’s father was an animated storyteller, flapping his arms like wings and bobbing his head to pantomime Solomon, with an expression on his face he insisted was evil but it made Sara laugh.
That was eleven years ago. Sara wondered if the note meant Love had found a chicken. She laughed softly to think of Solomon and the little girl of long ago.
“Something you’d like to share with the class?”
Sara’s head snapped up from the desk. The teacher was standing in front of her, his arms crossed, one eyebrow cocked.
“N-no sir, Inhabitant Palmer,” she stammered.
He looked down at the holo-pad in front of her and she realized too late that instead of taking notes, she had been doodling farm animals. He took the pad and held it high for the class to see.
“I see you do have something to share with the class,” he said in a mocking tone, “things that no longer exist. Class,” he continued, walking back towards the front of the room, “if something no longer exists, what is it?”
“Not Allowed,” they chorused.
“Very good, class,” he put the pad on his desk. “And what is the penalty for a breaking a lesser Not Allowed such as drawing things that do not exist?”
“A visit to the Principal,” they chorused.
“And what happens in the Principal’s office?” he asked smiling, his voice as smooth as butter.
“You get adjusted,” they chorused.
The teacher sat on the front of his desk, arms crossed, still smiling as Sara rose from her seat to go to the Principal’s office. She willed herself not to cry. Maybe she did need an adjustment.
There were no such things as chickens anymore.
The Principal looked down his beak-like nose at Sara sitting in the plastic chair in front of his desk. He tented his fingers, tapping them three times on his chin before speaking.
“Tell me why you are here, Inhabitant.”
“I broke a Not Allowed, sir,” Sara said softly, “I drew creatures that do not exist.”
The Principal stood, walking around his desk and behind Sara, his fingers tapping the back of her chair tap, tap, tap.
“And why did you draw these, these creatures that do not exist?”
Tap, tap, tap.
Nausea rippled down Sara’s spine like ice water.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You don’t know.”
Tap, tap, tap.
Sara could feel his breath on the back of her head. She fought back the urge to vomit.
“Well then, let’s get you adjusted and back to class so you can become a productive member of our grand society.”
The Principal pressed his pointer fingers into Sara’s temples.
“Now,” he smiled, “this won’t hurt a bit.”
Sara walked down the harshly lit hallway towards her next class with swimming eyes and a head full of fog. She had needed the adjustment, she thought to herself. She had been right to turn in the Brinkles. She was wrong to have drawn the creatures that do not exist.
A piercing whistle sounded. Sara looked up just in time to realize she was standing too close to her classroom door, but too late to avoid the impact as it flung open. She fell backwards, arms outstretched, and the last thing she remembered hearing was her father’s voice.
How foolish. He no longer existed, and was therefore Not Allowed.