“Yeah, yeah, yeah, man.”
“Dude, I was busy checking out Miss Krinshaw’s boobs.”
“Just text me after class.”
I collected snippets of conversations as I navigated my cart through clusters of polos, vests, button-ups, and blazers of varying shades of blue—I assumed all from St. Augustine’s uniform catalog.
A prepubescent, smooth-faced kid who looked too young and too short to be in high school unfastened his binder clips and handed a few loose-leaf sheets to an acne-ridden guy with a crew cut, who walked beside him. A series of deep laughs slipped by them as three guys, seemingly oblivious to everyone else in the hall, pushed each other. One, shaggy haired and wearing a striped tie, kept saying “No, man!” over and over again. One of the guys beside him flashed the chrome of his braces as he chomped down on bright green chewing gum.
A few students back, a short blond with a mousy nose and gorgeous blue eyes dodged slower students till he came to the three guys. They expanded across the hall, effectively blocking the flow of traffic. The blond hesitated and rolled his eyes. When a space opened up beside them, he dashed through and bumped into another guy’s shoulder. He offered a quick, insincere apology before continuing rapidly on his way. He must’ve had a class on the other side of school… or just somewhere he was trying to be super early.
There were a few glances and fingers pointing my way, but it wasn’t too bad. Wasn’t like someone was screaming, “Look at the freak show!”
Normally, I tried to avoid class changes, but Wahrmer had texted me to hurry over to the teacher’s lounge. Curseds’ cells had limited connectivity to their employers and emergency services. The UCIS made it illegal to own a nonregulated cell. The line of thinking was that regular cellphones would give us the opportunity to communicate and plan to deviate with other curseds.
Wahrmer’s text had read: hurry to teacher lounge. looks like shit.
Maybe if I hadn’t spent an hour on bathroom tiles, I’d be there already, dumbass.
I squeaked alongside the brick wall and shifted to enter a nearby doorway. I shoved my cart over the metal trim that divided the cement floor of the hall from the carpeted floor of the teacher’s lounge.
Coffee splatters and stained napkins covered a counter on the other side of the room beside a vat of coffee. On the tables, scraps of food and bags from nearby fast food joints were laid out. Clearly, no one had read any of the laminated sheets posted around the room, stating in all caps, CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELVES, PLEASE.
Between a microwave and five bins of sugar packets, the speaker of a small, maybe nine-inch TV filled the room with hollers and shouts.
Does no one know how to turn off a fucking TV?
I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with the TV if the teachers watched soaps or courtroom dramas, but it always seemed to end up on the news, which right now featured coverage of deviant burnings.
Deviants were curseds who’d abandoned the system and, in the process, put everyone at risk as they opened themselves up to a potential future infection from demons—demons who could go on to hurt who knew how many others. Though I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to increase my odds of infection, considering the fear and hate people had for curseds, I understood why so many chose to deviate. Our lives were hard. It was work. And it was despised.
I abandoned the cart and darted across the room to turn the TV off before the broadcast sent me on a downward spiral to depression.
“Help me! Please!” a woman shouted. Nappy brown hair wrapped around her cheeks, folding at her shoulders. She wore black slacks and a light green blouse. Her arms were tied to one of the standard stakes.
People, held back by a chain-link fence, rattled against the wire and hollered obscenities at the woman. They held signs. Some had the long-winded, political ramblings: Deviants are a threat to National Security. Others were more simplistic: Hell is for Devs.
The shot cut back to the cursed on the stake. The camera zoomed in, emphasizing the horror in her eyes.
They never broadcast the burning, but still, it was sickening that all those people had shown up to watch and cheer on the woman’s death.
I recognized her from the UCIS coverage that had been going on for the past few months. Margerie Finnagan—the name was displayed on a title bar beneath her. She was a deviant who had abandoned her state-issued work and had been living in a shelter with several other deviants. After being discovered and interrogated about the whereabouts of other possible deviants, she and everyone else in the shelter were sentenced to death—the usual punishment for disregarding the UCIS’s guidelines.
The camera cut from Margerie to a blonde reporter wearing foundation that glistened in the sunlight. She stood behind the chain-link fence, beside the mob of sign-holding hecklers.
“The deviant,” she said, “has refused to reveal the whereabouts of other deviants to the UCIS and has been sentenced to death. An expert psychiatrist with the UCIS said that she was too emotionally unstable and disturbed to be released back into society. This same cursed has been linked to four accounts of assault, including accomplice to rape.”
Lies, I thought. Deviants were usually tied to twisted crimes. Most of us figured it was to make the deaths appear justifiable. Who wouldn’t cheer for the death of an accomplice to rape? Hmm. Maybe an actual accomplice to rape. But for most people, they just needed to be assured that deviants were the lowest, most disgusting creatures in the world.
“Maria, Maria…. ” The shot flashed to a man with a scalp sprinkled with thin brown strands. Pronounced frown lines jiggled as he spoke. “Why do you think it’s taken this long to find this group of deviants? And what are the current UCIS numbers?”
“Dan, the UCIS stresses that they’re doing all they can to track down these terrorists. And while these deviants are certainly an issue, they encourage us to remember that compliant curseds are absolutely no threat. However, deviants have been on the rise over the past year. Studies indicate that anywhere between 1.8 to 2.5 percent of registered curseds have deviated. And Dan, as we know, the rising numbers of deviants only remind us of the DC bombings just four years ago.”
They cut back to Margerie. I grabbed the remote from the top of the TV and turned it off.
Several years earlier there were bombings at the White House and several congressional hotspots, orchestrated by deviants protesting the severe and unrecognized oppression that curseds in the country were living under. It was another issue that encouraged people to consider deviants and curseds threats to society—as if just the possibility of us being infected wasn’t reason enough for people to hate us.
I didn’t think it was right to bomb people, but having lived my life as a cursed, and knowing the sort of life we were expected to joyously take on, I could understand where that sort of rage came from. Unfortunately, those sorts of violent reactions only stirred more rage from regulars.
Still, it was hard for me to fathom how all those people could stand there, believing that cheering on that woman’s death was right. The only crime she’d committed was refusing to abide by the absurd regulations of this brutal and unforgiving society. Did that really warrant such a horrifying and humiliating death?
I flipped the glossy page in a book on Florence. I was curled up in an amazingly thin excuse for a blanket. It had come with the room. If the last guy who had worked here had lice or the plague, I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms… yet.
At the head of the cot I lay in, I’d rigged a desk lamp and a chair so I could have a little light while I read. When the chair wasn’t being used for the lamp, I’d pull it over to a stack of boxes lined along the adjacent wall. I used them as a sort of makeshift desk. A hamper in the corner, between the desk and my cot, made up the full extent of my furnishings in the room that must’ve served as a storage closet previously. No regular would have ever been expected to live in a space this small. Hell, had it really even been sanctioned for a cursed? Or did they just know it was incredibly unlikely that I, or any other cursed tenant, would complain?
I sure wasn’t going to. It had a window. That was more than I could say about most of the rooms I’d had in the past, and being granted a shimmer of light every day—even just the luminous orange glow of the streetlamp outside—was pleasant enough.
I flipped to the next page.
I’d discovered the book during my rounds in the library. Being a state employee, I wasn’t allowed to check out books, so I just slipped them into my cart and snuck them to my room. Most of those books wouldn’t be missed, and even if someone couldn’t find them, human error was a more likely suspect than a cursed my age, considering most weren’t encouraged to read.
But I had been.
In my first work assignment with the state, I was employed at a university with another cursed, Artie Metzger. Artie was a freckle-faced man, scrawny and always dressed in ties like he was going to be doing more than scrubbing toilets, which he never was. Always smiling. Always laughing. Didn’t do him any good. He was far too optimistic for someone in his situation. We bunked together in a room about half the size of the St. Augustine cupboard. He used to check out books from the library—travel books, mainly. He’d tell me about all these great places in the world, all these places that neither of us would be able to see. He’d ramble on and on. Show me pictures. He’d shove them in my face, get me to tell him all the things I’d like to do there. He said we had to keep our minds on things we wanted, the good things in life, keep our spirits high. Only way life was worth living.
I didn’t see much point in all that, but one thing did make sense to me—one thing he said stuck with me even after all these years. “Read, kid,” he’d say. “Don’t you ever stop. They can cage your body. They can beat you into submission, but this mind, they don’t have that. This mind is yours, so don’t you let it go to waste. ’Cause you do that, and it’s your own damn fault.”
That was true. Because hard as the world was, shitty as people were to Artie and me, no one was able to take away those moments where we were talking about Greece or Spain. And though I’d never seen the Incan Trail and the Serengeti, I really had felt like Artie and I had traveled up and down them together, if only because we’d talked about them so much. I don’t know that I ever believed we could affect the world by changing how we thought… not the way Artie did. But I did believe we could escape it… if only for a brief moment… if only long enough to experience something just a little more pleasant.
That’s what Artie gave me. So I’d still lift some travel books from the library. I knew I wasn’t ever going to any of these places, but I loved looking at the pictures, just imaging that I was gonna go there. Just pretending I was on a beach or needing to figure out which of the top ten restaurants I wanted to go to. What phrases would I need to get around town? These were the kinds of games, ridiculous as they may have been, that kept me sane. And yet, they reminded me of how important my one eye was, because if I lost it, these little portals… these passages to other places would be completely closed off to me.
It was the double door down the hall from my room. The night guard, Henry, had to go around and check on everyone, even me and the newbie curseds who, though technically not the school’s slaves, were absolutely the school’s slaves.
Henry was also a cursed. He was an older guy, in his fifties. Kind of crotchety. Kept to himself, like most of us. But I didn’t imagine the initial outbreak had affected his demeanor much. He seemed like the sort of guy who would’ve ended up that way even if life hadn’t been so bad for him.
Not more than five feet tall, he had a face of lines. What gray hairs he had left were long and stringy. He tossed them over his mostly nude scalp. Unlike most comb-overs that try to fool people with a sort of illusion of more hair than is present, Henry’s seemed to just be a product of laziness—a lack of desire to shave those remaining survivors of the follicle exodus.
Quiet as he was, he was a rat who would tattle on any employee, cursed or not. I think it was to get in good with Wahrmer. Being a squeal meant Wahrmer gave him certain perks—including consecutive days off and longer breaks—that kept him loyal to Wahrmer… and a traitor to our kind.
Twisting the knob on the lamp beside my cot, I tucked my book under the blanket and curled up, closing my eye like I was asleep.
The door creaked open. A flash of orange in my good eye let me know that Henry’s flashlight was on me. Another creak assured me when his inspection was over.
This was a fairly regular routine at all the places I’d worked.
But now that the coast was clear, it was time for me to make my escape.
Thirty-three… thirty-four… thirty-five….
Sweat sizzled in my eye before creeping out the corner, making its way along the side of my nose.
I did modified pull-ups on a low-hanging branch. Because of my condition, I had to use my forearms to suspend in the air.
After taking my regular getaway exit, I’d slipped into the woods behind the school and walked for just over a mile to the place where I regularly went to relax.
I’d discovered this place just days after I’d arrived at St. Augustine. After a particularly hard day of work, involving a toilet-paper-covered restroom and an egged assistant principal’s office, I’d taken an unsupervised walk in the woods behind the school. They were connected to an adjoining park. During my walk, I came upon this piece of quiet.
Moonlight covered the woods in a blue glow. A thick layer of fall leaves covered the ground. A cool breeze, whistling as it bent and shook the surrounding branches, pricked at the sweat on my face.
This was part of my regular workout ritual. It was another thing I’d learned from Artie. He used to do push-ups and sit-ups in our box-of-a-room. He said it gave him energy, made it easier for him to handle some of the labor that was expected of us—not just physically, but mentally. He’d encouraged me to do it, and I found that it helped me destress… to clear my mind of the clutter that tried to constantly bombard it, from viscous memories to mundane annoyances.
On top of being good for destressing, I found that the more toned my body was, the more in control I felt. Where my limitations made me feel vulnerable and weak, strength made me feel powerful.
Thirty-six… thirty-seven… thirty-eight….
I was slowing down. My arms trembled as the reps ripped into my biceps.
Whenever that happened, I recalled one of the times I’d been harassed by regulars. It gave me the motivation I needed to keep on going.
When I was fourteen, I’d worked at another high school. Mountain Spring in Kentucky. Some of the seniors had grabbed me while I was on lunch duty. They’d dragged me out the cafeteria doors and down a stairwell behind the school. One of the guys led the others in a rendition of some song they’d made up about the One-Eyed Monster… me. They chanted it as they carried me to the dumpsters. They beat the shit out of me and force-fed me whatever trash they could find in the dumpster. Choking me with the shit. Occasionally making me swallow. And they just kept chanting that little tune. I remember looking up at a window a story above us. A teacher glanced down, witnessing the whole thing. Blonde hair fell to her shoulders. She couldn’t have been more than thirty. I wondered if she was going to get help, do something, but she never did. She just stood there, watching.
At some point during the attack, I blacked out. I woke up in the trashcan, buried under several garbage bags. Because they’d broken my arms and a leg, it took me three hours to climb out.
It was those sorts of memories that helped me keep going.
Thirty-nine… forty… forty-one…