There are three things about my situation that I know. First: I must get out of the City, though it seems to have no end. Second: every Citizen is waiting for the signal to set upon me, tear me into screaming strips of flesh and end my life. Third: I am the one who will give the signal, though I have no idea what the signal is. It may be a certain angle of my hand as I wipe my forehead or a certain type of sneeze. It may be some series of gestures whose sequence and timeframe I could never guess. A sneeze may be harmless enough in itself, but followed by a turn of my head to the left or right it might prove lethal. The possibilities are infinite and dizzying.
I no longer look into the Citizens’ eyes as I walk. Small and black, these eyes are set into grey, flat and scaled faces. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Citizen blink, and I doubt they have eyelids. What passes for a Citizen’s nose are two thin slits that open and close with each breath, set over a mouth whose lips seem pulled back to expose small, sharp and white teeth.
Their City’s streets are long, clean and narrow. These streets are bordered by sidewalks and tall buildings. They support no wheeled traffic; I have never seen so much as a bicycle on their black pavement. The Citizens’ only contact with them is in crossing from one corner to another.
I have seen no lights or even signs indicating which corners are appropriate for crossing, yet some support a constant flow between parallel sidewalks while others are never used so. Some must be appropriate for crossing and others not, and the Citizens must have some way of distinguishing between the two.
Hypothesis: their generations have resided here so long that recognition of such corners is now instinctual.
Counter-hypothesis: the very constancy of traffic on these ever-flowing sidewalks has created a set pattern of general behavior. Never are these sidewalks in any state but that of supporting a heavy amount of walking Citizens. Maybe the pattern of crossing at certain places began with incidental, random acts of individuals, growing into something more by the universal tendency for each to follow another’s example. These patterns are now so determined that they appear to express a law of nature.
Counter-counter hypothesis: They see signs on these streets which are invisible to me. This postulation unsettles and disturbs me though, so I don’t allow my thoughts to linger over it for very long.
I’ve never seen any of them read, and never seen anything recognizable as writing, not even the crudest of pictographs. My immediate response to this is that if their writing (for whatever reason) doesn’t show itself to me, then of course I have never seen them read or write anything. Therefore, that’s no argument for the non-existence of writing as opposed to its mere invisibility. At this thought it seems that I could be surrounded by signs on all sides and at all times, proclaiming, declaring, cautioning or warning all who pass– except me.
Finally, I consider the hypothesis that such communication regarding appropriate corners for crossing is achieved by word of mouth. I am almost certain that the Citizens have a language, though I have never heard one of them speak a single distinct word. Instead, they let out a constant hint of a whisper that varies slightly in volume or pitch, but has no more distinctions in sound than a tire with a slow leak might have while someone variously manipulated its shape.
The effect of such constant whispering on all sides is disconcerting. It was especially so when I first found myself here. Every Citizen seemed to be whispering some secret to me in passing–some secret transmitted by all, to all, and on all sides in a vast, murmured conversation. I would stop and turn, with the intention of asking what had just been said by the one who passed, only to be knocked into by another, hard. Turning again to apologize or accept an apology, I would again be bumped, only harder. Finally, I either staggered into some pace that allowed me to walk amidst them, or was simply knocked down.
My hands were then stepped on and my body became a bruise from these sidewalks’ constant, heavy traffic. I can’t say they kicked me, exactly. It’s more like they couldn’t bother to change their sharp way of stepping–in a subdued march–just because such steps happened to injure and occasionally draw blood from someone foolish enough to be lying on the sidewalk. The first time this happened I pulled knees to chest and covered my face with my forearms.
I soon realized that such defensiveness was a slow and painful attempt at suicide. There was no hope of the Citizens ceasing their walking, or even moving around my huddled form. The only thing to do was suffer the blows from feet and knees as I rose, until I could finally stand and walk in step with them.
Remembering such clumsy fumblings fills me with dread, and I now wonder at such ignorance. Even in those first painful days here I had an understanding of their wish for my destruction. It has simply become more refined. Almost unbearably so.
Because of this, I have tried to catalog every movement –even the smallest twitch– which I have engaged in since being here. I hope to thereby set a boundary of safe gestures and possibilities of action. My memory, however, is a shabby and imprecise instrument.
I feel a drop of sweat upon my neck, and must fight the urge to wipe it away. I can never be sure that I have moved my hand in just such a way before. If I haven’t, then that simple act may be my destruction. Or I feel a need to cough, and I panic as it rises, my mind racing through possibilities: have I covered my mouth when I’ve coughed before, and if so how? Or did I suppress it and let my chest heave, or did I simply let it out? Such constant considerations make it difficult to meditate on trying to find some way out of the City.
There is an especially tall skyscraper that I have been making my way towards for days now, simply because it stands out. I rest when I can, by following close behind a Citizen I see walking into one of the innumerable buildings. Once inside, I find a corner and sit, closing my eyes. It is apparently safe to do so. The first time I did this, I was exhausted beyond caring whether I would be eradicated for it, and knew that collapsing in the street was as good as collapsing into death.
I can never rest fully, however, as some portion of my senses is constantly directed towards the world beyond my closed lids in fear that some involuntary spasm or sigh during my rest will set a horde upon me. I know that resisting would be useless, and still my instincts won’t accept that logic, and insist on at least some slight vigilance so I might try to defend myself and not be taken completely unawares.
It is when I am about a block from this tall building that I am caught by surprise. It is the only building I have seen in all this time whose doors are open. I suppress the urge to hurry my pace. No other distinguishing features can be made out from such a distance, though my eyes probe every surface of it that they can. I operate under the dangerous assumption that my eye movements are far too minute to be noticed, and so they are the only parts of my body that are allowed complete freedom.
The Citizens seem to be as indifferent to the tall building as they are to everything else in their world. They don’t break off their path to turn sharply and enter it, nor do they pause when their path happens to carry them through the open doors, or in any other way acknowledge that it might be different from any other building. Because of this, I am again sunk into a resignation and failed hope when I approach its open doors.
The sun has reached its apex, and there are no shadows on the street when I finally enter. My eyes take a moment to adjust as I walk in. The first thing I notice is a lack of stairs, and again my heart thuds with excitement that must be subdued. Citizens are walking in and out of doors that line the walls of the huge lobby, and there is a small hallway to my right. If nothing else, it may prove to be out of the way, a place where I might sit and rest, so I make my way towards it.
Two are walking behind me, and I feel as if they are following me. I barely overcome the urge to turn and face them, continuing my steady pace with downcast eyes. There are a large number of Citizens in the short hall when I enter, and my first reaction is one of disappointment. I am tired. This is far too crowded a place to rest safely.
It is only when I raise my eyes that the disappointment is replaced with something close to elation. They are all gathered in front of what appears to be an elevator door.
This is the first elevator I have seen in the City, the first building without stairs, and the first building with open doors. I am cataloguing these facts as I try to examine the wall, try to find some way that the elevator might be summoned. I see none, and decide that it must run on a regular pattern. I wonder for a moment if it even has buttons to push for the various floors or whether it simply stops at each floor and opens its door for a certain amount of time before closing and continuing.
Finally, the door slides open, and the Citizens enter. There are six in total, including the two that moved past me. They all turn, and seem to be looking at me. Entering an elevator is, of course, a new –and therefore likely lethal– action. At the same time, it seems I am expected to enter; standing still may also trigger my death. The panic is screaming in my head, and I know that I must do something.
The doors close.
I let the tension ease from me, making sure to keep my breathing even, despite my pounding heart. When I know I can do so without shaking visibly, I turn back toward the lobby.
The door opens again.
The six are still there, and their gaze has not shifted. I wonder if the elevator has even moved. The image of them standing in a still elevator, not moving, gazing at the same spot and waiting for me stabs ice into my spine.
They stare straight at me, and the focus of their little black eyes makes me sick with fear. As I have avoided these eyes, so they have been indifferent to me, until this moment. This moment is about me, their attention is on me, and I wonder if even the sweat on my forehead might prove lethal.
I step into the elevator, my jaw clenched so tightly—despite myself—that I hear a high-pitched keening in my skull.
The door closes behind me. The elevator does not move. I turn, slowly and carefully. I hope I won’t scream or beg as I die.
A gasp almost escapes me. Off to the right, there are eight buttons, and they are numbered. Two rows of four.
A visible trace of something outside of this City and its inhabitants–writing–may indicate that one of these buttons offers an escape. One of these buttons may also very well be the end of me if it is pushed.
At the peak of my terror, an apex. My thoughts clarify and shine, illuminated by the very fear that they break from. In this revelatory light, I know that escape and destruction are both traced within those numbers.
Perhaps the button for my escape and the button for my destruction are one and the same. My freedom might be found only in giving the signal to have the Citizens end me. The desperate avoidance of this has, in fact, been the richest source of my terror. Whatever baneful deity placed me here, he must see me as I see myself in these moments: absurd and cowardly.
I smile as I place four fingers of each hand on the two rows of buttons and push them all simultaneously. It is a feeble gesture but the only act of rebellion I can think of, and I mean to ensure my release one way or the other.
R.E. Hartman lives in Oakland, California. He’s had several essays published in obscure philosophical journals as well as the books “This Book Is Not Required” by Inge Bell and Bernard McGrane, and “The Un-TV and the 10 mph Car,” by Bernard McGrane. His story Ahab appeared in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.