The Collar – A Short Story by J. Fitzpatrick Mauldin

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“A young girl’s special gift robs her of the ability to choose her future, making her a slave”

When a special gift manifests itself in the life of yet another, unnamed girl, she is subjected to use it in ways she does not believe. By compulsion, the Collar around her neck forces her to do as the Man in White bids through a young boy, Her Tamer, as proxy. More than anything she wishes to have her life back. One of safety, security, and love with her family—but that path is no more. She is a slave to their will in all but her deepest mind. And perhaps that solace will be enough to keep her alive until she can make her move, and have her vengeance.

Audio narration (performed by Ivy Tara Blair):

***

“Please struggle,” the Man in White said, aiming his words at the Boy in Orange. “You must. It’s for posterity.” He stroked the instruments beside him on a metal tray. A scalpel. Pair of scissors. Set of hemostats. Stethoscope.

The boy was trembling. All he’d done wrong was download illegal music. A few films. Maybe a dirty video or two, but only since they’d been banned. He was young and curious, that’s all. Just a boy coming of age. Another one of their victims. And my first.

“Come now, it won’t hurt badly.” The Man in White put a finger to his lips and then pointed at me. “Girl, this will be easier if we don’t have to force you.”

My eyes drifted up to the digital maps ahead of me on the wall. Several planets were displayed—Pluto, Saturn, Earth—lines I thought of as threads in intricate, fractal weaves encircling them all. Words like “Seeds” and “Gifted” were displayed in the corners, their numbers changing by the moment as an object set to the side marked as Archive grew larger.

The Boy in Orange tipped his head and looked up at me, his green eyes glistening with tears.

The fingertips of my right hand danced up and down my thigh. The room was cold in that paper gown, knees and legs and arms exposed to the recycled air. I reached for the band around my neck out of reflex and felt sick. It was there, the other end tethered to my Tamer. It was always there.

“Don’t make me, please, don’t make me,” I pleaded. “Give me another choice. I’ll—I’ll do anything. Anything.”

The Man in White’s face did not change expression; there was not even a twitch of empathy, only carved granite and weary eyes. “Your gift, my dear, is what steals your choice away. We need what you are to survive. They have ones just like you. Some—even better.”

“But why?” I asked. “Why? Can’t we make peace with the other countries? Can’t we all just get along.” But as soon as the words left my mouth I knew they’d been a mistake. Even my dad would have found that statement naive.

“Do it, child!” he demanded. “Do it, or you will suffer!”

Standing close by my Tamer was another boy, not much older than the Boy in Orange, not much older than me. But he was different. He was hard, hard as stone, and I was water, eroding him one drop at a time.

I shook my head. “I—can’t.”

My Tamer’s mouth went tight, his grey eyes cold. And though I knew what was about to happen, I swore I saw a kindness there, regret sketched in the edges of the lines of his face. Still, it came.

“Do it,” The Man in White said, waving a hand to My Tamer.

Pain is a concept people only think they understand. The Boy in Orange had known pain before coming here. I was sure of it. He’d been beaten, thrown on a bus, malnourished, and insulted. It was possible he’d been abused in ways we don’t speak of, told how little he was worth to society, and not ever had a place to call home. Those pains were all real. All legitimate. But the Boy in Orange’s pain was a five year old’s doodle on the back of a lunch menu; whereas mine, was a Van Gogh, a work of art. Wild, yet organized, bright and colorful. Thousands of strokes of oil, texture in impasto, a masterpiece of agony and suffering.

My Tamer tapped his wrist and used—it. Colors washed before my eyes, flowing through my mind and into every nerve of my body.

Yellow: Like the crack of a broken femur.

Red: The cutting of flesh and dread over its depth. Burning away of nerves and healing of wounds.

Blue: Silent and gasping, desperate for air.

Green: Decaying and mad.

Purple: Twisting and clawing, dragging and peeling.

And the worse of all. White. The antagonist, the very nemesis of pleasure itself.

It was all I could do to keep my hands from my throat. Tears would have been welcome, but it did not allow me to cry. In fact, it made me unable to move. Unable to scream. Unable to think. It set my brain asunder with cascades of licking fire; and so I fought, focusing the pain on something else. Wildflowers and vineyards, forests and fairies. It was all in my mind. A cool summer day, the early mists of a campout, the smell of frying bacon.

After my Tamer was finished, my stiff frame went slack and I crashed to the floor. My insubstantial legs trembled. My knobby knees clicked. My teeth throbbed. I put a hand to my chest. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep this up. The colors were becoming more vivid than ever. Synesthesia was another symptom.

At this age I should have been in dance class or making plans with friends to see a concert, but I was here. And the world where girls did things like that no longer existed for girls like me. So many girls like me.

My Tamer glared at the Man in White.

“Fine, fine. Take her back for now.”

I should have felt relived the Boy in Orange had been left alone. He would feel no pain. Not like mine. I only hoped he understood my sacrifice.

A warm glow suddenly enveloped my mind. It was My Tamer. He hid that he did this for me. He took away the pain and threw my unwilling masterpiece into a vat of sugar and honey and cloves. The parts of the brain which triggered pain, so very close to what triggered pleasure.

My Tamer was kind.

“Back inside,” he said, voice iron. How could a boy with dimples, soft lines, and eyes of dough be baked into something so hard and crusty? Boys in the other world weren’t this hard. My brother hadn’t been this hard.

I scampered through a barrier of wild, shimmering color and into my concrete block, back aching from stooping over. The door closed with a quiet, mountainous click, and color faded from around the opening. The room was nothing but an apathetic grey, the only different tones left were swimming in my own head.

My hand brushed the right side of my head. Prickling bits of stubble remained just above the ear. Then I ran my fingers through the hair on the left side of my head and smiled. They’d let me keep that side long, the hair I’d grown when I was still with my family. When I was happy.

I sat on the stone bench and gathered up my blanket. It had was always been  cold in here. I used my fingers to comb the long strip of blond. My mother used to do this. It made me sleep more easily when I couldn’t stop thinking. When my mind spun round and round like dervish. It made the demons in the shadows flee, just like My Tamer did after I refused. But my mother’s comfort was better, different. Mother was part of my soul, an intertwined thread which wound its way through my heart.

I stopped.

She was gone. I was gone. My father, with his strong arms and sympathetic eyes, gone. My brother. Gone. Sister. Gone.

I remembered that our house had a soul, alive with those who lived in it, but the cold walls of my box had nothing but apathy. These walls looked the other way while girls like me were forced to stay here by the Man in White. Forced to do things they did not believe in. Things they did not understand.

I reached for my neck. Tugging. Shaking. It did not move. It never moved. It made doing anything impossible. Made sleeping difficult. Breathing strenuous.

I tugged one last time and gave up. My chicken fingers were no match for titanium. I hugged my knees and rocked for a while, thinking of a way out. I was too big to fit in the drain. Too dense to slide through the window. Too soft to break down the walls. There was no way out. No way out.

I rolled the blanket around me and laid down on the stone slab, skin prickling. This was all in my mind. All in my mind. All I had to do what turn back time.

As I stroked the golden strands of my hair, I let my mind wander and left this place far behind.

I was at home. My brother played in the living room with our tan cocker, as my sister complained about not going shopping with friends. Mom was in the kitchen making spaghetti while dad was out back cutting the lawn. I ate crackers with peanut butter and drank milk from a short glass, sitting on the staircase dreaming of going back to the mountains.

I was in a green field of colorful flowers riding a mighty steed. My golden hair flowed behind me like a banner on the wind. A staff of power thrummed in my hands. A white dragon came down from the infinite blue and scoured the land with a strip of fire. I raised my staff and bar of rainbow light crashed into the beast. I did not need a prince to rescue me.

I was on the swings. A boy with brown curls and pretty wrists looked at me. It made worms of cinnamon and ginger wriggle around in my stomach. I went to the jungle gym and he pushed me down. He told me that girls were gross, but yet, wouldn’t stop looking at me. Wouldn’t stop fidgeting. All I wanted to do was smile at him.

All in my mind.

 

——

 

Days were always the same.

The Women in Blue were not kind. They did not smell of honey or cake like My Tamer. They shouted at me, forced me into a damp, open room, body bare, flesh itching with shame. But I was not alone in there, though I might have been in my own head. Other girls were there. And the Man in White, he had to be, standing hidden among the luminous corners of the showers, leering at us, seeking pleasure in the dismantling of our humanity.

They scrubbed us till our skin felt raw, turned pink and dry. They covered us in soaps and oils, shaved our legs and forbidden places. Scoured us in white hot water, and froze us in a purple cold rinse. I used to meet eyes with the other girls, but all it did was make me feel yellow with anticipation. Our connections made through those brief glances, would only later be snapped in half. There were always new girls.

“Let’s go you freak of nature,” the Women in Blue would tell me, grasping my arms so hard they would bruise.

They led me into the hallway, my naked body dripping water onto the floor. My precious strip of hair sticking to my jaw and neck. A thousand tears I could not shed, a thousand times I wished I was dead, were left beneath me in my passing.

They were not kind like my Tamer.

This happened every day. I slept. Tried to remove it. The women came and washed me. I fought not to make eye contact. Came back to my box and waited. My Tamer would arrive, and I would feel better. Till he led me to the Boy in Orange. The Man in White would say his words and I would resist. My Tamer would follow the Man in White’s orders, and I would experience the pain.

The colors became brighter and brighter.

On good days, I passed out.

My Tamer would comfort me, and put me back in my box.

For seven times three it went on.

“Please,” My Tamer said one day, pleading. “Do what he asks.” He took a deep breath and his iron eyes fixed on my lips. Something made my heart lurch, my legs wobble.

I turned my head and went back into the box.

I finally understood. The Man in White held his leash too. My Tamer was just like me. But instead, he had a chain he could not see, a chain he did not wear. That was why he was kind. He did not hurt because he wanted to. He comforted because he wanted to.

I put my hands to my face and found that my cheeks were warm, then laid down on my slab and twisted my hair, imagining it smelled like wild flowers and lavender. I began to hum a silent tune just like mother.

Two times five. The days carried on.

I was stripped naked. Scrubbed. Waited. Taken to the Boy in Orange.

“Come on now,” the Man in White groaned. “It’s not hard. He’s a criminal. He deserves such. He brings chaos into our world of order. He steals from others. Risks our ideals. It is because of people like him you are here! We must protect our country from threats both inside and out. If you do not do this, thousands will die. Millions will die! Don’t you understand?”

I kept my face down. I couldn’t bear to meet any of their eyes. Dangerous things could happen when I met peoples’ eyes.

The Man in White turned a pair of scissors over in his hand. He approached the Boy in Orange, running their sharp tip over the boy’s throat and across his Adam’s apple. The boy began to gush sour sweat.

“Don’t make me take drastic measures.”

I looked sidelong at My Tamer and found no emotion. He stood bolt-upright, in attention as stiff as a flagpole.

“Well?”

I considered the Man in White’s words. Was this the boy’s fault? Our world had been perfect before his like. Before the hackers and data thieves, illegal torrenting and requisitions.

I looked up, meeting the boy’s eyes, and touched his mind. It whirled inside of me like a tempest, ribbons of color so bright I felt my third eye burning. The boy shuddered and gasped. A thread ran down the middle of the vortex, white light reaching out into black. All I had to do was cut the thread and the pain would stop. His pain. My pain. It will all stop.

“No,” I growled, turning my eyes away. “No!”

The Man in White rushed forward, his voice level, “Then you will pay.”

I reached out for My Tamer, but he did not come to the rescue. He stood there as stiff as stone. I wanted him to be a prince, but all he was, was a statue.

A flash of scissors shot past the corner of my eye, and the Man in White took hold of my strip of long hair, wrenching it away from my skull. Red and blue blossomed in my head. I screamed. This was pain I could channel. He jerked me up by my golden strands, nearly pulling me off of my feet. My arms went limp, and I was unable to fight back.

Snip. A thread inside of me snapped. He cut again, and again. Snip. Snip. Snip. Golden rays showered the floor. He discarded me and walked away.

The hair I’d grown with my family, at home in happiness and in peace, had been cut away. It was all I had left of them, and he had taken it from me. I went to gather up what remained but he pushed me away with a foot.

“Take her back to her box,” he hissed, sounding drawn, stretched thin. I glanced up at him and for an instant I swore I saw moisture in his eyes. But it didn’t matter.

My Tamer led me out of the room.

My family was gone. I was alone. Never to be rescued. Never to feel safe again. As I limped back to my box, I hoped the fork from meal time was still there. Maybe I could open my veins with it. End the pain.

We reached the box and my Tamer opened the door.

He touched his bracelet, and I felt the pressure release in my head. He closed the door and left me alone.

My emotions rose from the aquifers of anguish deep inside in my heart, gushing forth in a river pressing against my eyes, the long held dam crumbling. My body trembled under the weight, breaths impossible to catch. My lips quivered and I moaned. The rainbow colors of iron pain woven into my heart melted into a fountain of bitter sweet, salty tears.

He was a prince after all. He had let me cry.

 

——

 

“Finish this,” the Man in White said, and I refused. “Then there is nothing else to do.” He turned to My Tamer and nodded. “We gave you the chance.”

An unreadable expression flashed on My Tamer’s face. I had to remind myself he was being forced. He did not want this.

He reached into my mind, using it, and I lost all control. My gazed snapped to the Boy in Orange and I felt compelled to act. I reached effortlessly into his heart, swirling of life and emotion and freedom, and clipped the thread.

The boy fell limp to the ground, and a wash of blue-green came over my mind.

I shouted, throwing my hands out, “I didn’t want to. I didn’t mean to!” I clutched myself in a vain attempt to find comfort.

The Man in White sighed and waved us off.

“You had to,” My Tamer told me, taking me back to the cold box. “We all do what we have to.” He opened the door and sat down beside me, gazing into the lingering pain of my eyes. Warmth and sunlight filled me, a sense of bliss and guilt, in equal, excruciating measures.

Then, at great risk for his own safety, he told me why. Why we did this. Why the Seeds had been planted on our world, and of who the true enemy was.

  The Archive.

We were not at war with other men. In fact, the other nations of Earth told the same lies to their own people. Propagated false reports to invent conflicts between us that never really happened. We were at war with something so far beyond what we could easily comprehend, something who had not just empowered us, but also, created us. Something that did not understand morality, only slavery, only knowledge. And they would come to harvest their seeds. We would be part of their Archive, and thus, no longer human. No longer having choice. This alone would wipe us out just like many others.

But when he was done telling me the truth he did not let me cry. He needed me to be hard.

I felt the stubble on my bald head and all I wanted was my life back; my family, my freedom, and I knew he wanted the same, but it could never be spoken, never.

It was logical what he told me. Cold and dark as it was. The only way for us to survive what was coming. And what had come before. Perhaps it was truly necessary. We had to use the enemies weapons against them. But I didn’t care. It only made me angrier.

I was not my own person. I was a slave. And more times than I’d like to admit, I’d considered killing myself in order to see my freedom again. Ridding the world of my mistakes and short fallings. But never once, in all that time, no matter how someone had wronged me, had I considered killing someone else. But there was one thought in my little head now, one choice I could make if I was careful for long enough.

I will see the Man in White burn.

 

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