Palo Alto Weekly 25th Annual Short Story
Harold creeped me out. I didn’t care that everyone was supposed to be closest to their SGCA agent. He was vulgar and crude, always chewing loudly in my ear on whatever my mom chose to make that day. I particularly hated it when she offered him a banana. This only happened once a year when my mom felt like splurging on fruit for Harold. She said that he was special and deserved to eat the most divine things but I couldn’t tolerate the clucking his tongue made when he cleared his mouth before speaking. Eating was supposed to be for fuel. That’s what we learned in school, but Harold seemed to enjoy eating. I guess the food that the SGCA agents eat must taste different from the pills that the rest of us take.
“So can you tell me how things are going in school?” Harold grunted at me. Why did we have to have personal meetings with the family agent every month? It seemed excessive and impersonal.
“Pretty good I guess,” I replied dully. Harold hated it when my answers to his questions were so brief and colorless but I didn’t feel like opening up to someone I didn’t feel close to. I didn’t even know what Harold’s family had been like before he moved into the SGCA building or even what SGCA stood for. All I knew was that he worked for the government.
His eyes filmed until they were as white as an unmarked whiteboard. I knew what he was doing; he did it every time we had this talk. The extraction. All SGCA agents could do it. Their eyes simply filmed over and they could grasp every thought that had gone through your mind that month. This was what I hated the most about Harold. He didn’t even know me and yet he came in every month and extracted every last thought from my brain as if I were a baby. Extraction was created for babies and people like me who are quiet and don’t spill their every last thought out to their agent. Finally, his eyes cleared up.
“You know that you should feel comfortable telling me anything. I know you better than you know yourself. Every thought you’ve had since birth is stored in a little compartment in my brain. Don’t think you can hide from me. You can’t,” Harold explained as he walked out of the room, not closing the door all the way so that it was left open an inch -- another pet peeve. What’s so hard about closing the door all the way? It made me feel unsure and uncertain as if the person couldn’t decide whether they wanted the door open or closed. I can’t stand having ideas feel so precarious and on edge. I like decisions and certainty and fully-closed or fully-opened doors.
I heard my own bare feet pad down the hallway to the kitchen, the hallway that was in the same place in every house. I wondered if anyone else was in the same place in their hallway as I was now in mine. I wondered what they looked like and whether they were walking or running. How were they feeling and how old were they? In mid-thought I slipped on something lying out on the floor.
I swore under my breath and rubbed my knee, the same knee that I’d fallen on the other day at school. Jade had stuck her foot out and tripped me as I made my way up to the front of the classroom to present the gerbils that I had successfully cloned for homework. From the scores that Jade gets on tests I know that she’s smart but she never bothers to listen to the teacher or take notes. She simply lays her head down on her desk, so that her bright, eggplant-colored hair slips down over the side, and falls asleep. That hair makes her look so lovely and rare, like a vegetable.
All over the hallway papers have fallen. In the corner is Harold’s ominous folder. It’s where he keeps all of the information he finds about us. Once I told Madee, my best friend, that if I ever got my hands on that folder I would burn it in a heartbeat. Now that I had it, its contents spilled out on the floor, screaming for me to collect them, all I felt was guilt. I felt that reading the papers would somehow be violating Harold’s property. At the same time, it was information about me and my family and I’d always wanted to know what was in that folder.
My heartbeat could be felt all through my body and it just kept getting quicker and quicker and seemed louder than the drum that the class had heard at a museum. I hadn’t understood what the point of music had been but the drum had been very loud. Hastily, I stacked the papers together in the folder and took it all to my room for me to read alone, quietly.
For the next two hours my eyes did nothing but consume those papers. They mentioned everything starting from our distant past up to that day’s conferences. When I got toward the end of the packet I was stopped by the menacing, red letters of the word “Future.” I didn’t understand what it meant. The previous two sections had been on the past and the present so this foreign word seemed so random. Anxious, I resumed reading. It was a list of facts about my family that weren’t true. It said that I was 17 and an SGCA agent, but my 17th birthday wasn’t until tomorrow. This couldn’t be right. A couple pages after that it said that I was 18 and had not been seen in months. The government, SGCA, was after me. It was all very confusing but I knew that none of this was true. Harold probably just wrote these little stories when he was bored or something -- what a weirdo.
Confused, I picked up the phone and called Madee. She was the smartest girl in our grade and she was bound to know what future meant. It was just so odd because nothing else in the packet had been made up. It wasn’t long before Madee picked up.
“Hey I have a question about a word: future,” I admitted. I told Madee all about the packet and what it said.
“Jace, you’re being stupid. Harold is a dull guy from what you’ve told me. I doubt he has any information about this word and he probably just made it up, being the loser that he is,” she said with a laugh.
“I don’t know Madee. Everything else in the packet was true. And if it started with the past and then went to the present then what if future is, you know, what will happen,” I suggested, feeling a little foolish. The idea was far-fetched but I’d always had a wild imagination and an appetite for adventure, until being that way had become childish. Now I usually kept those strange thoughts in my head. That is, unless I was talking to Madee, who usually felt the same way I did about the excitement of adventure.
“Maybe you’re sick. You’ll probably feel fine in the morning. Go to bed and just stop thinking about future,” she insisted. The line went dead. I wasn’t satisfied. It was like the door not being fully closed and it frustrated me.
Without knocking, my mom pushed the door open. She was always in my business, never knocking and just walking in on me. I didn’t mind though, I told her everything. I didn’t know if I should tell her about this though. She would probably scold me for going through Harold’s folder.
We walked to the car and silently got in. The car must have gotten the hint that something was up because it didn’t even greet us. In two seconds we were at the SGCA building. My mom had picked up the folder at home and I’d automatically known that I was to return it to Harold and apologize. We stepped up to the building and a tall, thin agent came out, her bald head glistening in the moonlight. With her eyes my mom signaled to the woman that we were here for something that I was not to know about. This was irksome and made me feel like a naive child. The woman nodded and her eyes filmed over and cleared up quickly -- she only extracted the reason for our visit.
Another agent, a girl who looked to be about 12, came out from an office and, without saying a word, took my hand and led me back to where she had just come from. Her face was pale and flawless, like the porcelain we had read about in history, and she had snowy white hair that slid straight down her back perfectly, without a single hair going astray. Her almond-shaped, neon-orange eyes blazed despite the rest of her expression being calm and collected.
There was nothing in her office but a white table with a clock on it and two white chairs. Everything was white except for the floor, which was blue and purple and patterned so that it gave the illusion of spiraling down, even though it was flat.
“Sit,” she instructed. She didn’t sound harsh when she said it or overly inviting, just monotone. I did as I was instructed. The clock read 12:01. I was finally 17 but I didn’t feel that now was an appropriate time for celebration.
“I understand you have read about the future and have successfully speculated about it. Yes, you were right in your guesses. That Madee isn’t as smart as you think she is. She knows her facts but she isn’t so creative,” she said.
I was bewildered because whenever a question popped up in my mind she seemed to answer it.
“What a curious boy. So many questions! I am able to read each thought without having to pause for extraction. Being an agent comes with its perks. You’ve always questioned the authority of SGCA agents. But in 15 seconds you will make the choice for me to brainwash you of this entire night or to become an SGCA agent like me.”
I had never thought for a second of being an agent! I felt extreme hatred for the government and how they got in our heads. I detested my agent! But now everything about her drew me in. At that moment my very insides wanted to be an agent! The intensity was too much.
“Thought you’d say so,” she said with a wink. “I can read the future, unless of course people change it.”
“Cool,” was all I could manage.
“I have news for you. You were right to question the government. If I told you all that I have seen while working here you might not believe me. Surely you didn’t think that your brother was really sick. Let’s just say he found out some things that the leaders of our government didn’t want the entire state to know. Tonight we are going to break out of the city. In 200 days we will have come up with a plan to take down the government. You and I will exercise and expand our brains to a level that we’ve never known. Ready?”
Suddenly, I felt a shock, as though I had been sitting in a bathtub and a hairdryer fell in. The girl grabbed my sweaty palm and flung me out the window. Astonishingly, I landed on my two feet, but my knees began to buckle. She jumped out behind me and managed to help me up before I could fall. Agents began to stream out after us as we ran. My heart pounded and legs burned but we just kept running. Something told me that we would be running for a long while and something told me that her prediction could very well be true.
"This story is anchored by an intriguing science fiction idea that leads to some genuine insights."
Short story writers wanted!
The 31st Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 13, 2017. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.