Chapter 1

Meg

     One thing you should know about me is that I write whenever and wherever I can. Mostly I write at night but sometimes in daylight, too. Writing is strictly forbidden here. I have seen people hung by their filthy fingernails for it; tortured in unimaginable, unspeakable ways.

     Given the severity of consequence, you would think this one rule – this simple-easy-to-follow-don’t-ever-fucking-write-they-will-kill-you rule – would be readily obeyed. It is not. This rule, more than any other, gets broken willingly and repeatedly every day – and that’s just the ones we know about, the ones who are caught and tallied in the Daily Register. The actual number, I imagine, would be quite staggering.

     The will to write – to be heard – is strong here. It’s how we preserve the one thing, the only thing we have left – our truth. That is why so many of us risk punishment, even death, to write what we feel; what we believe in. We write with whatever we can find – dirt, blood, water – anything.

     I’d heard whisperings in the past about those who have gone through Witness and survived, how afterward they were never really “right” in their heads again. I blame this wholly on the Suits and their asinine Code of Conduct, created and enforced to obliterate even the tiniest shred of individual expression. The Suits treat us like objects: something to be used and discarded, like an old piece of tissue. They don’t think of us as human beings: sentient, with thoughts, feelings, and needs of our own. Or maybe they do, but they just don’t care. Either way, it does something to us; changes us. So, we write. We write to feel connected to something greater than ourselves and to remind ourselves that we are still here, somewhere.

     Every time a rule is broken, a high-pitched, ear-splitting alarm sounds, alerting a Call to Witness. Attendance at Witness is mandatory and begins on First Day. The Suits do this intentionally, to expose us, traumatize us, so that we fall in line from the very start. It works, too. From the first shriek of the alarm to the disturbingly upbeat instrumentals they play at Witness End, it works – at least for a little while.

     For years now, I’ve been violating Code – doing whatever I want, whenever I want, without one iota of retribution or consequence. Why this is, I don’t know and I no longer care. What I do know is that it will never be me up there. I don’t mean to sound cavalier. I know my offenses are serious. It’s just a fact: I get away with things that Tabs do not.

     There isn’t anything special about me to warrant such favoritism from the Suits, so of course the first time I got caught I was absolutely petrified. The sky that day was a sticky yellow-brown, polluted with fine particles of dust that collected in my sandals and burned my eyes. I had been walking for hours looking for somewhere I could freely write and still be outdoors. Finally, near the outermost edge of Moirai, I found an old, wizened banana tree almost completely surrounded by a cluster of enormous boulders. Sequestering myself inside, I grabbed my utility stick from my satchel, crouched down, and wrote my name over and over in the dirt. Meg. Meg. Meg.

     I don’t know how long they’d been watching me; it could have been minutes, it could have been hours. At some point, I became uncomfortably aware of three sets of identical five-inch red spiked heels in my peripheral vision: toes lined up, all pointing neatly toward my head. I didn’t need to look up to know who the heels belonged to. I already knew.

     My breath caught; I dropped the stick immediately and pulled myself into a tight ball, awaiting castigation. Grisly scenarios ran through my head as I imagined myself up for Witness, like so many others I had seen before. Images of Tabs – frightened, cowering, and pleading for their lives – while the rest of us watched in horror.

     It was deathly quiet; no one talked, no one moved. Then, one of the Suits reached down to flick some dust off her skirt, and that one motion – of no real consequence – triggered an embarrassingly primal reaction in me. I thrashed in the dirt: arms flailing, body shaking, howling like a wounded animal. At the height of it, I heard one of the Suits tsk, “Drama queen,” in a high-pitched voice dripping with disdain. I froze on the spot.

     I could feel them watching me: their round blue eyes brilliant with religious fervor, dressed to perfection in their crisp red suits and spiked red heels, platinum blond hair flawlessly coiffed, and smiling, always smiling, red-lipsticked mouths exposing tiny, white teeth. The head Suit leaned over me, so close I could feel her silky breath in my ear “Sweetie, we’re just here to let you know that your mom called. She wants the phone number for the chiropractor.”

     Without another word they turned briskly on their heels, leaving behind a cloud of cloying, sticky-sweet scent. I lay there unmoving on the hard ground until well after dusk, trembling with fear and full of self deprecation. How could I have been so fucking stupid? Risking my life to write what, my name?

     Sitting up, I wrapped both arms around my knees and rocked back and forth, slowly at first then with increasing vigor, forcing myself not to flinch each time my body made contact with the sharp ground underneath. I rocked mercilessly, welcoming the pain; stopping only after bright red blood turned my dress a deep rusty-brown.

     Afterward, I gave myself a thorough talking-to. I was done; there would be no more rule-breaking for me. But, just a few weeks later I was at it again, and again. The Suits found me out every time (they have a knack for that shit), but always left me to my own devices. Now I can’t stop, even though I want to. Writing, and the thrill of breaking Code, has a grip on me: delicious and sinister, something that’s all mine. Yet, I have to admit that lately it’s been feeling kind of empty… and I can’t seem to shake the feeling that no matter what I do, or don’t do, the Suits are still in charge, pulling all the strings.