Maggie gets the notification delivered to her dwelling after her work hours are complete.
The community has reassigned you. You are no longer assigned to Food Distribution. Report to the Annex behind the House of the Old directly immediately after morning meal.
The notification isn’t signed, but she knows who sent it. The Elders. Or, well, one of their administrative attendants, technically. She furrows her eyebrows, confused. This isn’t her first reassignment – in fact it’s her fourth – but the others had been different.
The other notifications had included a reason for the reassignments, even though she’d known that those reasons hadn’t been true. First she’d “been a disturbance to the community,” then she’d “transgressed,” then “a need in the community had required a reassignment” which had clearly meant that a less honorable job had become vacant.
The Elders were not interested in assigning her to anything remotely honorable.
But, for all her knowledge of the community, all her transgressions and disruptions, she has no idea what’s in the Annex behind the House of the Old. It’s not a center for agriculture, technology, nurturing, or recreation. It clearly can’t be integral to the functioning of the community. She’s never seen anyone going in or out of there.
She assumes she won’t like it, but she has no idea what she’ll find there.
Maggie wakes at the bell and quickly grooms and dresses before walking to the eatery for breakfast. She wears a simple tunic today, unsure what the dress code will be for her new work assignment. As long as it isn’t the rubber smock and booties she’d worn as a Fish Hatchery Attendant – the rubber thick and rigid, always smelling of fish even hours after she’d left the hatchery – she’ll be fine.
She eats quickly, barely paying attention to the conversation at her table. She’s lived in the House for Childless Adults for many years now, and she’s been assigned to many different tables in her time. Her table mates have, over the years, flowed out to dwellings and family units of their own, or finally moved to the House of the Old. New adults have arrived, the young ones awaiting spouses and the older ones no longer raising children.
Childless Adults don’t have family units, but an effort is made to re-create those rituals in some small way, through tables. Over morning meal Childless Adults must share their dreams with their table-mates, and over evening meal they share their feelings, but Maggie often thinks no one is really paying attention. She certainly isn’t.
Once everyone else has shared their dreams, they look at her expectantly. Usually she says that she had no dreams.
Maggie always has dreams. Always. But after what happened with her Stirrings, she’d – hesitating and terrified – lied to her Father. “No,” she’d said, her nails digging into her thighs under the table on one otherwise unremarkable day, “I had no dreams last night.” He had nodded. Believed her. She’d lied, and he hadn’t known.
That was the beginning of the end for her, really. Once she could lie, she realized she could do anything.
It’s such a habit now, she doesn’t even notice when she lies to her table. She had dreamed about buildings, about angling a roof and connecting straight walls to a vast floor. “I dreamed about fish hatching,” she says dully, and they all nod and murmur their thanks for her dream, clearly bored.
Maggie reports to the Annex behind the House of the Old. She carefully tucks her bike into an empty spot in the designated, seeing two others already there. According to the tags, one belongs to a citizen-in-training and the other to a laborer.
She rings the bell and the attendant greets her, inviting her inside.
“Margaret, you have been assigned to replace me as the Attendant of the Annex,” the female says. “I am Laura. I will show you your duties.”
Laura is meticulous. She’s younger than Maggie and diligent to a fault. It takes her nearly an hour to explain to Maggie the most basic protocols of cleaning the building.
Maggie quickly comes to understand that while her new title is Attendant – technically a promotion from Food Distribution Laborer – her functional role is Domestic Laborer, a demotion. She’s to provide all of the domestic care for this building and its occupants. Cleaning, handling food deliveries, receiving visitors, compiling reports, and seeing to all the needs of the occupants.
Laura doesn’t tell her who the occupants are, but she seems to be apprehensive of them. She spends a lot of time reminding Maggie not to disturb them, ever. Maggie can’t quite understand how she’s supposed to see to the needs of people she can’t talk to, but she takes it in stride.
Maggie takes everything in stride.
Suddenly a soft bell tone cuts through the room. It’s not jarring, but it’s loud. Impossible to ignore.
“Oh,” Laura says quickly. “That’s the summons. Hurry up, now.”
She ushers Maggie over to a door. She pushes a button and the door unlocks with a click. Maggie snaps her head over. No doors in the community are locked, ever. It’s annoying.
“She values her privacy,” Laura says, like that explains anything.
Maggie feels exasperation, but she says nothing – an omission that, in the eyes of someone as rules-minded as Laura, might as well be a lie.
Laura opens the door and steps meekly through, gesturing for Maggie to follow her into the doorway.
Maggie’s jaw drops. Receiver? The Receiver? Is the occupant of this building…The Receiver of Memory?
She’s pretty blocked in by Laura’s body, so she can’t see into the room at all. She can’t see The Receiver. She tries to remember every public ceremony she’s ever been to in her life, unsure if she’s ever seen The Receiver before.
She’s pretty sure that she hasn’t.
“Has the new attendant arrived?” It’s a female’s voice. Maggie hadn’t even known The Receiver was a female.
“Yes, Receiver.” Laura reaches back and pulls Maggie out from behind her. “This is Margaret, Receiver.”
Maggie desperately wants to look around the room but she tries to follow the standards of politeness. She looks only at The Receiver.
She’s a female, alright, and younger than Maggie would have ever guessed. They look to be roughly the same age. The biggest shock, though, is her hair. Unlike all the other females in the community, her hair doesn’t fall long and straight to her shoulders. Instead it’s cropped short, up to her chin, in a severe straight line.
She stands straight, tall. Imposing.
She’s staring straight into Maggie’s eyes. Maggie resists a visceral urge to drop her own eyes in submission. “Hello, Receiver. It is my honor to serve you.” A lie. Well, possibly a lie.
The Receiver says nothing for a long moment. She raises one eyebrow, which Maggie hadn’t known was physically possible. Finally, the silence loud in Maggie’s ears, The Receiver looks away from Maggie. “Laura, you may go. Thank you for your service.”
Maggie feels more than hears Laura take in a startled breath beside her. Clearly Laura had expected to continue with her unending explanation of duties for another several hours. But, of course, she says nothing of the sort. “Thank you, Receiver.”
She backs out of the room, and then Maggie is alone with The Receiver.
“Margaret, is it?”
Maggie nods but she’s hardly focused on the words. Because behind The Receiver, tucked around the nicer-than-standard table and bed and desk, are bookshelves. Filled with books.
Maggie has seen books before. Exactly seven of them. In her childhood dwelling they had the required three: the dictionary, the community volume, and the Book of Rules. As an architect she’d had three more: one called Types of Structures, one of complex mathematical equations, and one called Rules for Architects. In the Fish Hatchery there had been one, simply called Fish Hatchery. Her other jobs had been so simple they hadn’t even required a book.
But this room is full of books. Her mind quickly does the math. Six bookshelves with six shelves each. Each shelf holds approximately twenty-five books. Her mind spins with the numbers. That’s – that’s almost one thousand books.
Maggie never seen one thousand of anything at once, other than fish.
Maggie realizes that she’s staring, slack-jawed, and she tries to pull herself together, but she can’t possibly imagine what’s inside all of those pages.
Suddenly there’s the sound of someone clearing their throat. Maggie snaps back, remembering belatedly that the most imposing and powerful person she has ever seen – her new supervisor – is waiting for her attention.
“I apologize, Receiver.”
The Receiver does not accept her apology. Does not say “I accept your apology, Margaret,” as she’s supposed to. It’s shocking. Even Maggie hadn’t known it was an option to do anything else after an apology was made.
“I said, what was your last work assignment?”
Maggie swallows her apprehension. “Food Delivery, Receiver.”
The Receiver hums a little. Maggie doesn’t know what that means. “Why were you reassigned?”
“I’m not sure, Receiver.”
But The Receiver narrows her eyes. “Guess.”
Maggie blinks, surprised. “I—excuse me?”
The Receiver might almost smile. “I said, guess. Why were you reassigned?”
Maggie takes a breath, and for some strange reason, she decides not to lie. “The Elders like to punish me. So I imagine there is some part of this assignment that they expect me to fail at.” Maggie pushes her mouth closed, remembering just at the last minute to add a respectful “Receiver,” to the end.
She hopes she hasn’t just talked herself out of a job. She doesn’t particularly want to go back to Food Distribution.
The Receiver looks like she’s going to say something, but just then a person bounces into the room. She’s a female, young and smiling. “Hello, Giver,” she chirps, and Maggie finds herself looking around the room, wondering who that is.
“Hello, Kara.” It’s The Receiver who answers, with a more gentle voice than Maggie could have imagined. “Meet Margaret. She’s our new attendant. Margaret, this is The Receiver-in-training.”
“Hello, Margaret,” Kara says politely before turning back to The Receiver. “No more Laura?”
The Receiver smiles at her. “No more Laura.”
“Good,” Kara says, with a look that Maggie can’t understand at all. “Shall we begin?”
The Receiver nods. “We shall.” She turns to Margaret as Kara walks over to the couch. “I imagine Laura told you many inconsequential things about this job,” The Receiver says, something almost joking in her tone. “I am going to tell you only one thing. Your only job is to ensure that The Receiver-in-training and I can do our work without disruption. You may do whatever you need to fulfill that duty. Do you understand?”
Maggie nods. Without being dismissed, she turns and smartly steps out of the room, closing the door behind her.
After a few days of poking around the Annex – cleaning everything in sight, reorganizing everything outside of The Receiver’s room, reading through all of Laura’s incredibly detailed reports – Maggie is beyond bored. The Receiver hardly ever leaves her rooms, and The Receiver-in-training only comes for a few hours each day after school.
There is absolutely no need for a full-time attendant in the Annex.
Maggie starts to understand why Laura would write so many words about a day in which nothing happened. At least it would pass the time.
Finally, after one whole week of working in the Annex, Maggie decides that a fifth reassignment would be better than this endless boredom. So when she delivers the evening meal to The Receiver, she folds her hands behind her back, and she asks for something. “Excuse me, Receiver, I don’t mean to intrude, but I was wondering if I might ask you a question?”
The Receiver looks up from where she’s been hunched over on her sofa. She looks to be experiencing discomfort tonight. “What is it?”
“I am…there isn’t very much for me to do, as your attendant. Do you have…” Maggie swallows. “Do you have anything else you’d like me to be doing? Or that I can do?”
The Receiver tilts her head, studying Maggie. “You’re bored,” she finally says.
“Yes,” Maggie admits. “I apologize.”
The Receiver does not accept her apology. She narrows her eyes.
“Do you know how to drive a vehicle?”
“No, Receiver, I don’t.”
The Receiver’s face does something that Maggie doesn’t understand. “Would you like to?”
Maggie’s eyes light up.
The Receiver requests that Maggie become trained in how to drive a vehicle.
Maggie loves it. It’s exhilarating. A hundred times better than riding her bike at full speed.
She’s sure it rankles the Elders to give her such a treat, but she assumes they can’t directly contradict The Receiver. The Receiver is one of them, after all, even though she’s not old.
After her training, Maggie is able to drive The Receiver to neighboring communities when she needs to visit them. Maggie has been to several neighboring communities before – both as a child in school and as an architect – but it’s been years. And it gets her out of the Annex.
The Receiver begins to complain to Maggie about her meals. She has certain preferences, she confides, and she finds at least half of what she’s served to be unpleasant.
Maggie idly expresses the wish that she could prepare The Receiver’s meals, instead of having them delivered already assembled from central Food Production.
Within a week, The Receiver has sent Maggie to Food Production for two weeks to learn how to assemble meals, armed with a list of foods she prefers and a list of foods she never wants to eat again.
After her training, Maggie is in charge of creating meals: ordering the ingredients from Food Production and assembling each meal to perfection inside the Annex for The Receiver.
The Receiver praises her first meal with a curt but serious, “This is good, thank you,” and Maggie smiles for the rest of the night.
After Maggie shyly admits that the food she serves The Receiver looks better to her than what she eats in the Childless Adult eatery, The Receiver instructs her to request double from Food Production. Maggie begins to take all of her meals at the Annex, slowly distangling her life from the House of Childless Adults for the first time in so many years.
Three months after being assigned to the Annex, The Receiver invites Maggie to share a mid-day meal with her for the first time.
Maggie sits hesitantly in The Receiver’s room, perched at her table, willing herself not to stare at the books.
“I feel as though I don’t know anything about you,” The Receiver says.
Maggie almost chokes on her potatoes. “What would you like to know, Receiver?”
The Receiver narrows her eyes, like she always does when she’s looking at Maggie. “Let’s trade questions,” she finally says. “I’ll ask you one, then you ask me one.”
That sounds incredibly impolite. Maggie’s eyes flicker – without even a thought – up to the speaker mounted on the wall. Impoliteness, even inside a dwelling, is always met with a chastisement. And Maggie doesn’t have too many of those left before she’s Released.
It takes Maggie what feels like an entire minute to process those two words. She blinks, beyond confused.
“The speaker,” The Receiver clarifies. “It’s off. No one can hear us.”
Maggie gapes. “It—how?”
The Receiver shrugs a little. “My work, by its nature, is private. I have the power to turn the speaker on or off. Although, I only turn it on when I need to reach someone directly.”
Maggie simply sits. She’s never, not for a minute of her entire life, been able to speak without fear of consequences.
“So,” The Receiver says softly, obviously aware of Maggie’s discomfort. “I’m going to ask you my question now.”
Maggie nods, trying to wrench her mind back to their meal.
“What was your comfort object?”
Maggie almost snorts with the absurdity of the question. She’d expected something much different – something like Why do the Elders dishonor you? or Why haven’t you applied for a spouse? Not this slightly ridiculous question about an object that had been taken away from her when she was an Eight.
“Um, mine was called a tiger.”
The Receiver smiles at her. “Stripes, right?”
Maggie smiles back. “Right.”
“Now your question for me.”
Maggie can’t think of one that isn’t rude. She doesn’t trust that the speaker is off, not really. So she asks the same question back. The Receiver smiles a little, like she’d expected that.
“My comfort object was a rabbit. Have you seen that?” Maggie shakes her head. “They’re about this big.” She holds her hands about eight inches apart. “They have these long ears, and a nose that moves all the time, and they hop all around instead of walking.”
She talks about the rabbit like it exists. Like she’s seen it move. Like it isn’t just a blob of fabric and stuffing, given a meaningless name by the factory workers.
They begin to take many meals together. Each time, they ask each other one question. After a few weeks, The Receiver softly asks the question that Maggie has been apprehensive about.
“What were you assigned to, when you were a Twelve?”
Maggie looks down at her hands. She’s fallen so far from the promising Twelve, the smart girl with an aptitude for math and physics, the second child of a successful engineer and a doctor.
“Architect.” Her voice is as soft as it can get. “I was assigned to be an architect.”
Maggie is late to work. The House for Childless Adults announced that she needed to move to new dwelling room, and they didn’t give her notice. She doesn’t have many possessions to move, but enough that she’s late arriving to the Annex.
The Receiver is waiting for her, clearly annoyed.
Maggie, equally annoyed, finally trusts that the speaker is off. She tells The Receiver what happened, and then, for some reason, she tells the truth about her feelings. “They only did it to upset me,” she says to The Receiver. “I’ve lived there longer than almost anyone else, but I’m the one who had to move rooms. And I’ve moved more times than anyone. It’s as if they want me to be uncomfortable.”
The Receiver doesn’t defend them.
She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t chastise Maggie for being late.
One week later, she ushers Maggie into what used to be an empty set of rooms on the other side of the Annex. Now there is standard furniture, set up like any dwelling in the community. A couch, a table, chairs, a desk, a bed.
The bed has a covering on it that reminds Maggie of the one in The Receiver’s own room.
“You can live here, if you want,” The Receiver says, standing in the doorway. She’s fiddling with her hands and for the very first time ever she seems unsure. “I mean, you don’t have to.”
Maggie has a strange urge to put her hands on The Receiver’s hands, but she doesn’t. “Thank you,” she says, dragging the words up from deep inside herself. She has a hard time recognizing this feeling, because it’s been so long since she was happy.
She moves out of the House for Childhood Adults. She doesn’t look back.
“Do you like the name Margaret?”
It’s late. The Receiver-in-training has left for the night, and they’re taking their evening meal together in The Receiver’s room.
Maggie shrugs. “It’s okay. But I…” She drops off, shrugging, unsure how to explain this.
“It’s off,” The Receiver says quietly, tilting her head towards the speaker. She says it sometimes, like she knows that Maggie needs the reassurance that their conversation won’t be overheard.
That she won’t be chastised for what she says.
That she won’t be Released for it.
“I know it isn’t precise, but when I was a Six we went to visit another community, to the east. And a male I was playing with said that an Eleven in their community was named Margaret, but that people called her Maggie. Before that I hadn’t...I hadn’t known that people could call someone by something other than their name or their number.”
The Receiver nods, knowingly. “It’s called a nickname,” she offers. “A shorter version of a name. A nickname.”
Maggie nods, wondering once again how The Receiver knows all of these impossible things. “Even though it isn’t permitted in our community, ever since then, I've thought of myself as Maggie,” she admits softly. “Just to myself, of course.”
The Receiver hums again. “Would you like me to call you Maggie? Just here, when the speaker is off?”
Maggie doesn’t even have to think about it. She's never heard anyone except that Six say the name out loud, ever. “Yes,” she says. “Please.”
The Receiver nods, like it isn’t consequential. “Alright. I will. Now, your question for me.”
Maggie takes a breath. She’s been wanting to ask this for a while, and tonight seems like the right time. “What was your name? Before you were The Receiver?”
The Receiver is silent for a moment. Maggie opens her mouth to apologize, but The Receiver holds up her hand and Maggie goes silent. “No one has called me by this name in many years. Not since the previous Receiver was Released.”
Maggie wants to apologize, to take the question back, but The Receiver doesn’t let her.
“My name is Alex,” she finally says. “It was Alexandra, when I was a child, but I...” She shrugs a little, and Maggie realizes how she might know the word nickname. “It’s Alex. My name is Alex.”
“Alex,” Maggie says quietly. “I like that name. I haven’t heard it before.”
The Receiver smiles at her. “Would you call me that? Just here, with the speaker off?”
Maggie starts. “Oh, no, Receiver. I couldn't. It isn’t polite.”
The Receiver snorts. Maggie blinks.
“Maggie,” she says, and the word sends a shudder down Maggie’s back. “We see each other more than any other person in the community. We live together, we take meals together. You can even share your dreams with me, if you’d like. And no one can hear us. I’d like for us to use each other’s names. It might feel...normal. I would very much like that. If you’re willing.”
She looks so earnest. Like she does really want this. Maggie nods, swallowing down her apprehension and another feeling she can’t name. “Alright,” she says. “I’m willing.”
They finish the meal in silence. Maggie packs up the remains to set outside for her former colleagues in Food Delivery to pick up after nightfall.
“Goodnight, Maggie,” The Receiver says, sinking back into her chair.
The Receiver smiles at her – a big, beautiful smile that Maggie hasn’t seen before.
Maggie is happy for the rest of the night.
It’s the middle of the afternoon. Maggie is sitting at the front desk, mindlessly waiting for The Receiver-in-training to leave so that she can prepare The Receiver’s evening meal.
Everything is quiet, as it always is. No sounds from the House of the Old ever come through to the Annex, and Alex makes very little noise.
It’s always quiet, but this afternoon there’s a sudden sound that Maggie can’t name. It’s loud, jarring. It’s from a person, she thinks. The Receiver-in-training, perhaps? It’s a little like she hurt herself – like that time Maggie’s sibling Robert fell off his bike and scraped his face – and a little like the angry wailing of a newchild. There’s something gasping in it, breathless, like when Maggie rode her bike too fast and felt like her chest was being squeezed.
It’s coming from inside of Alex’s room. Maggie doesn’t go in, but she hovers just outside the closed door, unsure what to do. She doesn’t want to disturb their work, but she doesn’t know what’s happening inside. If it’s the type of sound she should break the rule for.
The sound goes on and on. It gets quieter – less jarring – but it continues. It rises and falls in pitch. It hitches, sometimes.
Maggie doesn’t understand what it is, but the dark place inside her body aches at the sound.
Finally the bell sounds. The summons. Maggie quickly flicks the switch to unlock the door and hurries in. The Receiver-in-training is on the bed, curled up. She's holding her stomach with both her arms, rocking back and forth as though she’s experiencing something beyond discomfort. Alex is sitting next to her, moving a hand up and down The Receiver-in-training’s back.
“Maggie,” Alex says softly, looking up into Maggie’s eyes. “Please bring us some water, and anything sweet we have.”
Maggie doesn't want to fail Alex, but she doesn’t understand. “What is sweet?” she asks.
Alex sighs, like Maggie has failed to understand something simple. “An orange, maybe. Do we have an orange?”
Maggie nods quickly. “Yes, Receiver.”
“Good. An orange, then. Cut up. And water. Please.”
Maggie doesn’t have to be told to hurry.
She comes back two minutes later, her hands full of the orange and two cups of water. Alex asks Maggie for help, and together they slowly move The Receiver-in-training over to the couch. The Receiver-in-training is shaking like one of the Old. She refuses to let go of Alex, grasping her tunic with both hands and making the sound again until Alex relents, sinking down right next to her.
The Receiver-in-training curls up, leaning nearly all of her body onto Alex’s. Maggie has never seen anything like it. The Receiver-in-training isn’t using Alex to help move around the room anymore. She doesn’t need anything Alex is holding in her pockets. Maggie doesn’t understand why she’s still touching Alex.
The Receiver-in-training is still making the sound. She’s still crying like a newchild.
Maggie places the waters and the orange close by, where Alex can reach them without moving too much.
“Thank you, Maggie,” Alex says quietly.
It's two hours before the door opens again. Maggie is sitting up at her desk, her head drooping. She's tired and confused. Today has been unlike other days.
The door opens and Alex walks out. She carefully closes the door back behind her, making sure it doesn’t make a sound. “The Receiver-in-training is resting,” she says. Her voice sounds different from usual. More like how it had sounded when Maggie first reported to the Annex. Like how she’d spoken to Laura. “Contact her family unit to tell them she’ll be spending the night here for additional training.” She doesn’t say please.
Alex waits while Maggie does just that. Maggie expects her to return to her room, but she doesn’t.
“Is my evening meal prepared?”
“I will eat it in your room so I do not disturb The Receiver-in-training,” she announces. “Bring it to me there.”
Maggie blinks. Her room? Alex hasn’t been to Maggie’s room since she’d first set it up.
It isn’t until Alex says, “Don’t forget the water, Margaret,” that Maggie understands.
The speaker in this part of the Annex is always on.
Alex is protecting her. Protecting them.
Maggie walks quickly to the food preparation area. She gathers both evening meals in her hands and moves into her room. Alex is already there, standing next to the bed. Maggie places the meals down on the table, and Alex quickly closes the door behind her and then reaches up, flicking off the speaker.
Maggie has noticed the switch, just like in Alex’s room, but has never once turned it off.
The second it’s off, something changes in Alex’s face. In her body. She sags a little bit, like something was holding her up but now it’s gone.
She walks to the soft chair and drops herself into it. She places her head into her hands and is still for a long moment.
“I hate this,” she finally says, her voice muffled by her hands.
Hate is a word that Maggie has thought many times, but has only said out loud once. She was chastised for it. Reassigned for it. The word sends a horrible jolt through her body, right into the dark part.
Alex says it again. “I hate it so much.”
Maggie doesn’t know what to say. She’s supposed to say, “That’s imprecise,” or maybe, “You mean dislike, Receiver.” But those don’t sound correct.
Alex is saying the word like it’s very precise. Like she means something very different from dislike.
Alex looks up at Maggie then, and her face is wet. She’s crying, like a newchild. She's crying tears onto her face and her hands. Maggie didn’t know adults did that. “That poor girl,” Alex is saying. “That poor child. She’s a baby.”
Maggie doesn’t know the words girl or baby, but she understands that Alex means The Receiver-in-training. She understands that Alex is calling her a child even though she became a Twelve two ceremonies ago, so she hasn’t been a child for two years.
“I’m hurting her,” Alex says, and she’s looking at Maggie like she wants Maggie to help her, but Maggie doesn’t know how. “I’m torturing her. I’m killing her.”
Maggie doesn’t know those words either, but she can hear what they mean. She can hear how Alex is in terrible discomfort.
Alex shudders, and her voice starts to sound like the noises The Receiver-in-training was making. “I’m hurting her, just like they hurt me.”
Alex slowly eats her evening meal.
“What is sweet?” Maggie asks. Alex didn’t prompt for a question, but Maggie asks it anyway.
Alex swallows her bite, heavily. “It’s a taste,” she says. “The way a type of food tastes on your tongue.”
Maggie blinks. She’s never thought about how different foods taste on her tongue, other than liking some more than others. And honestly she’s only thought about that since starting to work at the Annex and preparing meals based on Alex’s preferences.
Alex holds out a piece of her nutbar. “This is a salty taste,” she says, offering it to Maggie. Maggie takes her from her fingers, as carefully as possible. They have never touched, and Maggie is careful not to touch her now. “Feel how it has a tang, sharp and light, and how makes the back of your mouth wet.”
Maggie puts it in her mouth. She can’t believe it, but Alex is right. It feels delicious inside her mouth, like something jumping. Her mouth gets wet, right at the back of her throat. “Yes,” she says.
“And this is sweet,” Alex says, holding out her dateroll. “Sweet is the opposite of salty. Feel it on the top of your tongue. It's soothing and rich, like a whole afternoon holiday. It shoots pleasure down the side of your tongue.”
Maggie takes the dateroll, biting off a small piece. She rolls it around in her mouth. It’s just like Alex said.
“I never knew,” she says. “How have I eaten nutbars and daterolls since I was a newchild, and never known they had different tastes?”
Alex shrugs. “It’s hard to understand things if you don’t know the words for them.” It’s a simple sentence, but it means everything. Maggie thinks about nicknames. She thinks Alex must know the words for everything. She thinks about how Alex had named her feeling as hate.
“Let’s try it again,” Alex says. She’s edging closer, her knee pressing into Maggie’s knee through their tunics. Alex knee is hard and warm and insistent. “Close your eyes.”
Maggie, as always, doesn’t understand, but she does as she’s told. She closes her eyes.
Alex’s voice comes from very close by. It’s soft. Gentle. Private. “Open your mouth for me,” she says. “Tell me if this is sweet or salty.”
Something light presses against Maggie’s lips. She opens her mouth and takes it inside. It's delicate and soft inside her mouth. The back of her mouth waters. There's something bigger in the taste. It tastes like it will fill her up.
“Salty,” she says, her eyes still closed. “It’s fish.”
“Yes,” Alex breathes.
Maggie expects the next to be sweet, but it isn’t. She rolls it around in her mouth. “It’s a grainbake,” she says.
“Yes, but how does it taste?” Alex’s voice is so gentle, so close. Maggie wonders if there’s a word for that.
Maggie thinks. “It tastes...satisfying. Like it’s soaking up all the water in my mouth. It’s bouncy when I chew it.”
“Yes,” Alex’s voice says. “That’s called starchy, or doughy.”
Maggie likes how those words sound. She says them back, and she hears Alex made an mmm sound in her throat.
“One more,” Alex says. Maggie opens her mouth and she feels Alex’s fingers against her lips. They feel so warm, almost hot, but Maggie doesn’t think that has anything to do with tastes. “Don’t try to figure out what it is. Just taste it.”
Maggie does. The sides of her tongue curl up, seeking more of the taste. Her mouth waters. She swallows and immediately wishes for more. “Sweet,” she says.
She opens her eyes. Alex is one hand length away from her. “Yes,” she breathes. She reaches up and touches Maggie’s lips again. “You had something, here,” she says.
Maggie just watches her.
Maggie clears up the meal, setting out the trays to be collected. When she returns, Alex is still in her room. She's moved to the couch. “Do you mind if I stay?” she asks.
Maggie doesn’t mind at all.
A few moments later, Maggie hears a sound from the hallway. She starts to rise but Alex waves her back down. “We’re in here,” she calls out, her voice loud and strong enough to carry through the door to the hallway. “In Margaret’s room.”
Maggie is impressed by how Alex always remembers to call her Margaret anywhere the speaker can hear her voice.
The door opens and The Receiver-in-training steps in, closing it quickly behind herself. She doesn’t look like she’s in as much discomfort as before, but she’s not her usual smiling self.
“Did you sleep?” Alex asks her.
“A little, but I had nightmares.”
Alex nods. “Would you like to sit with me?”
The Receiver-in-training doesn’t respond. She just sinks down onto the couch, resting half on top of Alex like before.
“What is a nightmare?” Maggie asks it without thinking, and then immediately realizes what she’s done. She asked a question when she and Alex aren’t alone. “I apologize for my question,” she says as quickly as she can. “It wasn’t polite.”
Alex doesn’t accept her apology. The Receiver-in-training answers her. “It’s a bad dream,” she says.
Maggie looks at Alex, confused. What would make a dream bad? That’s very imprecise. Does she mean the Stirrings?
Alex understands the look. “A bad dream is a dream about something that makes you apprehensive or upset,” she explains. “Like if you dreamed about falling off your bike and hurting yourself.”
Maggie nods. She’s had dreams like that before, but she hadn’t known they were bad. They just were. “Sometimes I dream about the day I was first reassigned,” she admits. “Sometimes I dream about being Released. Are those bad dreams?”
Alex and The Receiver-in-training exchange quick looks. “Yes,” the young female says. “Those are bad dreams, because they’re about bad things.”
“Maggie,” Alex says softly, and Maggie looks at her sharply. Does Alex mean to be using her nickname in front of The Receiver-in-training? “When you were reassigned from architect, what did you feel?”
Maggie feels the dark place inside of herself. She doesn’t say anything for a long moment.
“It’s off.” Alex’s voice is that particular way again. Soft and private and gentle in a way that must have a name. “It’s off, and you’re safe with Kara, just like you’re safe with me.”
"I felt angry,” Maggie says softly, once again deciding not to lie. “I felt surprised. I felt disappointed. I felt...frustrated. I felt...is there a word for feeling not safe with people? A word for knowing that people are not safe? That they could...do things to you that you don’t like?”
“Betrayed,” Alex offers. “Hurt. Alone.”
“Yes. And I felt sad. And afraid. But all of those...none of those feel precise enough.”
Alex presses her lips softly to Kara’s head, and whispers something that Maggie can’t hear. Kara leans into Alex’s body, squeezing her tightly before standing up. She looks directly at Maggie. “Thank you for your feelings,” she says, but it doesn’t sound like it usually does. Not like when Maggie’s table-mates at the House of Childless Adults say it. It sounds like she means it.
She presses her hand down on Maggie’s shoulder for two seconds, and then she walks out, closing the door behind her.
Alex looks at Maggie, and then touches the couch next to herself. “Come sit with me.”
She’s careful not to touch their knees together.
“Those words don’t feel precise to you, because they aren’t enough for what you felt.” Maggie doesn’t know what that means. She keeps listening. “You felt anger when they made you move rooms. But what you felt when you were reassigned was more than anger. Beyond anger. Stronger than anger.”
Maggie nods. That’s true.
“You were betrayed by the people you trusted,” Alex says. Her hands twitch a little in her lap. “You felt that betrayal, that pain. You were devastated, which is much stronger than upset or sad. You felt like your life lacked meaning and purpose.”
“Yes,” Maggie agrees. “But I shouldn’t have. The community had another need for me.”
She says it by rote. She’s not sure she believes it, but it’s what she was told. It's what she’s supposed to believe.
Alex looks at her for three long breaths. “Do you believe that?” her voice is soft but there’s something behind it that Maggie can’t name.
“No,” Maggie says. “I don’t.”
Alex nods a little. “Me neither.”
“Why does The Receiver-in-training touch you?”
Alex has just returned from checking on The Receiver-in-training, who is sleeping in Alex’s room.
Alex blinks a few times at the question. “Because it’s comforting to her. To both of us.”
“I don’t understand. What is comforting about that?” Maggie doesn’t mean to be stupid, but she’s never experienced comfort from touching someone. Sometimes it’s important to touch, like when helping the Old bathe, or picking up a Nine who has fallen off his new bicycle. But it’s not comforting. Not like Maggie had felt with her comfort object before she became an Eight.
Alex runs her hands through her short hair, pulling with force. “I...I can’t explain it to you.”
Maggie feels the dark place inside of herself. “Oh,” she says, trying not to sound disappointed. “I understand. I apologize for asking.”
It’s her first lie to Alex.
“No,” Alex says quickly, reaching a hand out towards Maggie. “No, it’s not that I don’t want to explain it. I just...I simply don’t know how to make you understand.”
Maggie is silent for a moment. "I know I'm just a laborer,” Maggie says quietly, looking down at the floor, “But I'm not stupid. I can understand things.”
Suddenly Alex is in front of her, kneeling down on the floor, using one finger under Maggie’s chin to gently press up. She waits until Maggie looks into her eyes. “I know you’re not stupid.” Alex’s voice is strong, steady. Safe. “I know that, Maggie. It's not that I can’t explain it to you, in particular. It's not you. It's...” she sighs, like she’s frustrated. “I can’t explain it to anyone who takes the pills.”
Maggie says it before she’s thought about it. It's the most dangerous thing she’s ever said in her entire life.
If Alex reports her – if the speaker is somehow still on – she'll be Released for it.
But she says it before she can think not to.
“I don’t take the pills.”
It’s quiet for a long set of breaths. “What?” Alex’s voice is squeaky, like a Three.
It’s too late to lie now. Maggie says the truth again. “I don’t take the pills. I haven’t for many years.”
Alex leaves the ground, smoothly moving to the couch right next to Maggie. “Tell me,” she says. “Please.”
Maggie picks at a thread in her tunic. “I started taking them, like everyone. It was two years after I became a Twelve. I had...I had dreams, before that, about friends who were females. Wanting to be with them, dreams about touching their hair and their hands. I didn’t think very much of them. I told them at morning meal, like always, but my Father and Mother didn’t say anything about them. But two years after I became a Twelve, my Mother told me that even though I hadn’t had the Stirrings, I needed to start taking the pills anyway. To become an adult member of the community.”
Maggie looks over at Alex, who seems both confused and kind.
Maggie shrugs. “I was happy, I think, at first. To fit in. To be adult. To take the pills like everyone. But then the dreams stopped. I stopped -- I stopped feeling certain ways about my friends. About one female I worked with as an architect in training. I realized...I realized the pills made me stop.”
Alex takes a little breath. “So you know what they do,” she says. It's not a question.
Maggie nods. “Yes. And I missed having those feelings, so one day I stopped taking them. I took it in my hand but I dropped it on the ground and ran my bike over it. I did that for a whole week. And the feelings came back. And the dreams. They came back.”
Alex’s hands twitch again. “Did you share those dreams?”
It’s required of every citizen to share their dreams over morning meal, just like it’s required to share feelings over evening meal.
Maggie has already said enough to get herself Released. She should stop. But she tells Alex another truth instead. “No,” she says. “I lied. To my Father and my Mother. For many meals. I lied.”
Alex nods. “You did what you had to do to survive,” she says. Maggie doesn’t understand what that means.
“But after a year or so, I made a mistake.” She takes a breath, and she feel the dark place inside herself. “I told Eliza – the female architect in training – I told her about the pills. That they made her stop feeling. That I dreamed about her every night. I told her to stop taking her pills, and to see if she dreamed about me too.”
“Oh, Maggie.” Alex is looking at her like how she’d looked at The Receiver-in-training earlier.
Maggie’s dark place feels bigger than ever. She tells the rest quickly. “She reported me. I was chastised. I was reassigned from architect to Path Maintenance Laborer. I was removed from my Father and Mother’s dwelling and sent to live at the House for Childless Adults, even though my age-mates would not move there for two more years. I was told that if I ever stopped taking the pills again, told anyone, or violated one more rule, I would be Released.”
Alex is shaking.
Maggie finishes quickly. “For a few years, I did what they asked. I took the pills. I worked as a laborer. I shared my dreams and my feelings. I did not lie. But I still remembered. I remembered Eliza. I remembered how it had been, to feel. To feel for her. So one day I...” Maggie feels the dark place. Everything she’s said so far is enough to get her Released, but the Elders don’t even know this next part.
Alex reaches out, resting one of her hands on top of Maggie’s.
She was right. It immediately feels comforting. Maggie feels...whatever the opposite of betrayed is. She finishes her story. “One day I stopped taking the pills again. Now I feel everything. I feel sad, all the time. I feel hate, when I think about the Elders and the pills and being reassigned. I feel afraid when I think about being Released. I feel...I don’t know the word. Like I have no purpose or meaning.”
She looks over at Alex. Smart, strong, imposing Alex. Alex, who calls her Maggie, and always turns the speaker off.
She gently squeezes Alex’s hand in her own. “Or, I mean, I felt that way. But not anymore. Not since working here. Not since you.”
“I don’t take the pills either,” Alex offers, softly. “I feel everything too.”
Two days later, Alex summons Maggie into her room. The Receiver-in-training is in there too. “We want to try something with you,” The Receiver-in-training tells her.
"Yes, Receiver in Training.”
The two Receivers look at each other. “Please call me Kara,” The Receiver-in-training says. “And I’ll call you Maggie, if you’d like.”
“It’s off,” Alex says, before Maggie can even flick her eyes over to the speaker.
Kara smiles at her, that big smile finally back. “Good.”
Kara instructs Maggie to lay down on the couch and to close her eyes. Kara slips her hands under Maggie’s tunic, laying both hands on Maggie’s bare back. She tells Maggie to relax.
Maggie tries to relax. She breathes easily. Kara’s hands are warm and still on her back.
Nothing else happens.
“Did you see anything?” Kara asks a while later, her voice very excited.
“See? No. Was I supposed to? You said to close my eyes.”
“Oh no,” Kara says. She’s disappointed. Maggie has failed in her some way.
“Let me try.” Alex has that voice again. Maggie really needs to ask her what the word for it is. Kind and private and soft.
Alex sits next to Maggie’s body, gently working her hands inside and up Maggie’s tunic to rest on her back. Alex’s hands are cool.
Maggie feels something happening in her body, a little like what happened with Eliza so many years ago.
But she doesn’t see anything.
“Well,” she says after a moment, withdrawing her hands from Maggie. “That answers that question.”
“I apologize,” Maggie says quickly, sitting up.
Alex tilts her head. “For what?”
“For failing you. Both.”
Alex shakes her head. “You didn’t fail us. We were wondering if you could Receive. Now we know you can’t. We were wondering if we can simply because we don’t take the pills, but now we know there’s something else to it, too. You didn’t fail anything.” Her hand is somehow on top of Maggie’s again. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Maggie. We’re not disappointed in you.”
Kara comes back over, placing her hand on Maggie’s shoulder again. “Thank you for helping us,” she says solemnly. “We’ll just have to work out a different way to show you, that’s all.”
“Show me what?”
Alex smiles at her, something excited in her face. “Everything.”
They tell her the most unbelievable story. They tell her that their community hasn’t always been the way it is. That before the community there were other ways of living.
Before, and maybe Elsewhere, people chose their own spouses, and almost every family unit birthed and kept their own newchildren, instead of having a newchild assigned after submitting a request for one. There was no House of Childless Adults or House of the Old. Parents had parents. Adults had parents.
Before, and maybe Elsewhere, the ground rose and fell unevenly, and the air was sometimes hot, sometimes cold, and sometimes wet. If it was too hot or cold, a crop might not grow right, and there might not be enough food for each citizen.
Before, and maybe Elsewhere, there was not Sameness. Each day, something would be different from the day before.
Before, and maybe Elsewhere, people decided for themselves what job to have.
Before, and maybe Elsewhere, people would go visit not just neighboring communities like Alex does, but visit places that took a very long time to get too. Far away, Kara calls it.
Before, and maybe Elsewhere, people had disagreements that would get bigger and bigger until they hurt each other with words or by hitting their bodies together.
Before, and maybe Elsewhere, people would decide each day what to eat, because they knew about tastes.
Before, and maybe Elsewhere, there were no pills. People had feelings. People wanted. People cared.
They tell her that being a Receiver means they can see and feel all of those things. “Our official titles are Receiver of Memory,” Alex says. “All the memories of the past, of Elsewhere. They live on, in Kara and I.”
“That must be wonderful,” Maggie says. “To see and feel the air when it’s wet! Or cold! To feel those things! To make those choices!”
“Yes,” Alex says, but her voice is heavy. “It is wonderful. There's so much...there are so many beautiful things. But it’s also terribly painful. The world...there was so much hurt in the world. So many ways people hurt each other. And we feel those too.”
Maggie thinks for a moment. “But the Elders hurt me,” she says. “My Father hurt me. Eliza did, too. And the architects. I have memories of that, but not of anything beautiful.” It’s quiet for a moment. “I think I'd rather have both sides, instead of just one.”
Alex takes her hand again. “I wish I could show you,” she says softly. “There’s so much I wish I could show you. Color, and music. And love.”
“I don’t know what those are.”
“Well,” Kara says. “Color is about how something looks. We can’t share that with you. But we can make music, Alex. Not a symphony, but we can sing! And I think...” Kara pauses, looking at how Alex is still holding Maggie’s hand. “I think we can show her love, too. Right here. The three of us.”
Alex smiles at her. “You’re right,” she says. “You’re so very right.”
Three big things change for Maggie in the next few weeks.
First, Alex and Kara start doing something with their voices that they call singing. It’s like talking, but each word is long. It take a while, but Maggie starts to hear how their voices go up and down. Notes, Alex calls it. Pitch.
Alex teaches Maggie what a beat is, what rhythm is, and Maggie learns to hear it in their singing.
They tell her singing is a kind of music.
It takes weeks, but Maggie learns how to sing along with them.
It makes her feel impossibly happy.
The second is that Maggie practices being aware of her feelings. She stops ignoring them or thinking of them as the dark place. She practices noticing when she wants, when she’s hungry, when she’s tired, when she’s frustrated. When she feels very happy to be near Alex.
The third is that Alex gives her books. The books in her room are stories, some of them, from before. Maybe from Elsewhere. Alex says some are true and some are lies. It’s hard for Maggie to read them, because there are so many words she doesn’t understand. She starts only reading when Alex is next to her, so that she can ask all of the questions she has.
It's hard, but it’s the most interesting thing that Maggie has ever experienced. Alex teaches her the word imagination. Maggie practices using her imagination every day. Sometimes she even tells Alex what she imagines. It always makes Alex smile.
One day Alex is very sad.
She doesn’t eat very much of her evening meal, even though Maggie ordered and assembled some of the things Alex likes best.
“Would you like to share your feelings?” Maggie asks it softly, hoping that she doesn’t seem like the people at the House for Childless Adults – both nosy and also bored.
Alex shrugs, a motion Maggie has only learned since working at the Annex.
“I’m sad today,” she says quietly, but Maggie already knew that. “I’m missing John today.”
“Who is John?” Maggie wonders if John was a sibling, perhaps. Or an age-mate.
“John was The Receiver of Memory before me. He trained me, like I’m training Kara.”
She’s never mentioned him before.
Maggie is quiet. She doesn’t know what to say. She only halfway knows what it’s like to miss someone.
“He was…he was very important to me. Like a Father, in a way. He…he cared about me very much.”
“Tell me about him,” Maggie says. It will be a story, like in a book.
“He was so wise,” Alex tells her. “Kind, and gentle. Very soft-spoken. He held all the memories with such strength. When he started to give me the painful ones – war and hunger and hatred and death and pain – just a few of them, and I would cry. I would yell at him. Beg him to take them back. But he managed to hold them all inside himself. Thousands and thousands of them. The worst of them. And he never wavered. He never stumbled. He was so brave. So strong.”
Maggie doesn’t know many of those words, but she understands much of what Alex is saying anyway.
“He taught me about love. About caring. About comfort. I took great comfort from him. I cared for him, so much. I loved him.”
“Like Kara takes comfort from you,” Maggie says. “I see how she cares for you.”
“Yes,” Alex nods. “Like that. I try…I try to be like John, when I’m with her. Strong, and steady, and wise. But I struggle. Every day, I struggle. And today I failed. I was harsh with her, and I didn’t mean to be.” She shrugs again, and she’s so sad. “So today I miss him very much.”
“Where did he go?”
Maggie assumes he, like all adults, went to the House of the Old when he was too old to continue to work.
But Alex pinches her mouth together. “He gave me his final memory. I begged him not to, but he did. He gave me his final memory.”
She shudders, and she begins to cry. “He knew what would happen, when he had no memories left.”
Maggie takes her hand, hoping to give comfort.
“He kissed me on the head, and he told me that he loved me like a daughter, and that he was sorry. And then he was Released.”
She makes a sound – wrenching and painful and sad. “And then I was alone.”
“What does dying mean?”
Alex’s head snaps up. It’s a few weeks later, and they’ve finished evening meal.
“This book keeps mentioning it. The people in the story are afraid of it. What is it?”
Alex lets out a long breath. Sighs, Maggie thinks. She just learned that word. Alex seems sad to have to talk about it. Resigned, or maybe worried.
Maggie’s learning a lot of words.
“Dying is the end of life,” Alex explains. “It’s when a person is no more.”
Maggie blinks, confused. “Life...ends?”
Alex nods. She looks weary. Heavy. Burdened. “Yes. Every life ends. When a person is very old, they will die. But sometimes people die when they’re young. Like that Three who fell into the river.”
Maggie remembers that Three. “She was lost,” she says slowly. “We performed the Ceremony of Loss.” She slowly puts it together. “Lost...lost means dying?”
“Yes. The Three, Sarah, she died. She is dead. She is no more.”
Maggie thinks for a moment. “You said every life ends. But why is she the only person who...had dying?”
“Died,” Alex corrects gently. “But she’s not the only person who has died, Maggie.”
“I don’t understand. I don’t remember any other loss in the community.”
Alex takes a deep breath. She looks like she’s going to cry. “Release,” she manages to say. Her voice is high, like when she’s singing, but tight. She’s hurting, Maggie realizes. She’s hurting very much. “Release is dying.”
Maggie feels nothing. She wonders if there’s a word for that. “When people are Released. They...they become dead? They die?”
“Yes,” Alex whispers.
“The Old? And…and twin newchildren? When they’re Released, they don’t go Elsewhere? They…they become dead?”
Alex’s face is tight and her eyes look very dark. “Yes.”
“But they...they were going to Release me.” Maggie feels something welling up inside her. It's hard to breathe, to think. “They...I thought they were going to send me Elsewhere. But it...Elsewhere is...”
“Breathe,” Alex murmurs to her, but Maggie can’t.
“They were going to make me dead? To end me?”
Alex is silent.
“All because I didn’t take the pills? They were going to make me end?”
“Yes,” Alex whispers. “The word is kill. When someone makes another person die. Kill, or murder.”
Maggie shudders. Just the sounds are sinister. She still feels like she can’t breathe. “They were going to murder me,” she says, mostly just to hear the sound of it.
“Yes. They’ve murdered many people. Mostly the Old, some newchildren. And some adults who break rules.”
“Like me.” Maggie blinks. “After one more mistake, they’ll murder me, and I will be over.”
But Alex grabs her, reaching out and taking hold of Maggie’s face with force. “No,” she insists, her own face so close, tears on her cheeks. “They won’t. I won’t let them. I promise, Maggie. I promise you.”
Alex leans forward, touching her forehead to Maggie’s.
Maggie wonders how she’d ever thought that the touch of Alex’s body wouldn't be comforting.
Maggie wonders how Alex will feel, when Maggie’s eventually pulled out of the Annex and Released.
Alex comes to her room a few night later. Maggie has been asleep for a while, but she wakes up when her bed moves underneath her.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Alex whispers, sitting on the edge of the bed, reaching out to softly touch Maggie’s hair. “I kept having nightmares.”
“About what?” Maggie’s voice is hoarse from sleep, and it comes out in a whisper.
“About you.” Alex wraps Maggie’s hair around her finger. “About you dying. Being taken from me.”
“I’m right here,” Maggie tells her, because it’s true. “You’ll keep me safe. You don’t need to be scared.”
Maggie isn’t sure if she believes that, but she’s okay with lying to Alex in order to comfort her.
“Can I stay?” Alex asks, her eyes big and soft and vulnerable.
Maggie slides over, making space for Alex next to her in the narrow bed. Alex gets in, lying down without a sound.
They lay like that, next to each other, for several long breaths before Alex rolls onto her side, facing Maggie. She lifts her head up and over, resting it on top of Maggie’s chest. A moment of shifting, and then Maggie’s arm comes around Alex’s shoulders. She's holding Alex, like how Alex had held Kara that day on the couch when Kara had been sobbing and screaming.
Alex tucks herself even more tightly into Maggie.
“Goodnight, Maggie,” she says softly, laying her arm across Maggie’s stomach and nuzzling her nose in even closer.
“Goodnight, Alex. Sweet dreams.”
Alex is gone when Maggie wakes up. She wonders if it was a dream.
She finds a note in on the desk outside of Alex’s rooms, at the entrance to the Annex. It’s in Alex’s precise handwriting.
Was called to a meeting with the Elders. Didn’t want to disturb you. Will be back for midday meal. I hope you slept well.
Maggie runs her fingers over the ink. She can almost feel Alex’s body, still curled on top of hers. Can still feel Alex’s soft breaths on her neck, the rise and fall of Alex’s chest on her own. The perfect weight of Alex’s head on her shoulder and Alex’s arm across her body.
She hopes they can sleep like that again tonight. And every night.
She’s still thinking about the note when they come in.
It was the speaker, it turns out. After all of Maggie’s careful monitoring, it was the speaker that caught her.
Alex hadn’t flicked it off last night when she’d come into Maggie’s room. It wasn’t off.
It wasn’t by any means the worst thing the speaker might have overheard – it didn’t overhear the conversation about Release, or any of the singing – but it was enough.
They heard Alex call her Maggie. They heard Maggie call The Receiver by something other than her formal title.
They heard Alex tell Maggie about a frightening dream. They heard Maggie say the word scared, understand the word nightmare.
They heard Maggie say that Alex would keep her safe.
They heard Alex stay the night.
Any of those alone would be enough. But they also find a book in her room. Only The Receiver is allowed to know the book even exists. And Maggie was clearly reading it. That alone would be cause, even if Maggie hadn’t had any prior offenses.
And Maggie has multiple prior offenses.
The combination spells the inevitable.
They remove her from the Annex.
They take her to the Department of Justice and put her in a room by herself.
She understands that she is going to be Released.
She understands she will not get to say goodbye to Alex and Kara.
She wishes only that she had thought to tell them that they’d accomplished what they’d meant to.
They’d shown her what love was.
She knows that she loves them, both. Strongly, fiercely. With the part of herself that used to be dark. She loves them.
She hopes they know.
She hopes Alex isn’t too sad when Maggie is over. Dead.
She hopes that Alex and Kara can give each other comfort.
The judge orders her to be Released. She is not surprised. It hasn’t been more than two hours since she was taken. It might not even be time for the mid-day meal yet. Alex might still be in her meeting.
Maggie is sent back to the room to wait for her Release to be arranged. She wonders what needs to be arranged. She wonders how hard it is to murder someone.
She wonders what the person who used to be her Father will think, if he learns of it. She wonders what Eliza will think.
Maggie is in the Releasing room. There’s just a chair and a cart with supplies and three males. She's put into the chair. They tie her arms down with straps, but she isn’t resisting.
She understands that she’s been meant for Release since she’d first stopped taking her pills. Since she hadn’t realized that her dreams about her female friends were the Stirrings, and promptly reported them as she should have. Since she decided to lie in order to feel.
They prepare a syringe. Maggie understands that they will inject her with a poison, and then she will be over.
She’s grateful to have lived long enough to have met Alex.
Just before they inject her, just as they’re preparing the syringe, just as Maggie is taking one of her last breaths, the lights in the room go out.
All of them.
It’s pure darkness. Maggie has never been in pure darkness before. There are always lights on – dim ones, at least – and the night is darker than the day but never like this. This is pure lightlessness. She can’t see anything. She can hear sounds – people exclaiming and moving around. The sound of something or someone falling to the ground.
There’s a little yelling – confused at first, and then afraid.
More sounds of what must be people falling to ground and being still.
Maggie doesn’t make a sound.
She wonders if this is typical of Releases.
But then there’s a whooshing sound, and suddenly there’s a kind of light that Maggie has never seen before. It's on top of a broomstick. It's blindingly bright and flickering. Big and changing. She can feel it giving off heat.
She remembers Alex’s description after she’d read the word in a book. She thinks it’s fire.
And Kara’s the one holding it.
“Quickly,” she says. “Be quick!”
Before Maggie can ask what she’s supposed to be doing quickly – she's tied down – she feels a familiar hand on her arm. “Stay still,” Alex cautions, before smoothly sweeping a knife from the Fish Hatchery across the straps.
Freed, Maggie jumps to her feet. Alex drops the knife, pulling Maggie into her body and holding her as tightly as she can, just for one long breath.
“I was so scared,” Alex is whispering. “I was so scared.”
Maggie’s mind finally catches up with her. “You have to go,” she hisses, pushing at both of them. “You have to get out of here, or you’ll both be Released.”
“We’re all getting out of here,” Kara says grimly.
“We’re escaping,” Alex says, grabbing her hand and pulling her through the darkness. “Leaving the community. Forever. With you.”
“No, Alex. No. You have…you have to go. Let me be Released. Go back to your dwelling. Both of you. Save yourselves. Keep living. Please.”
But Alex is shaking her head. “No,” she’s saying. “No, Maggie. No.”
Maggie grasps at her. She can’t let them do this. “You can’t be over. You can’t end, Alex. I won’t let you.”
Alex is still trying to pull her from the room, clearly ignoring what Maggie is saying. “If you end, here in this room, then I end with you,” Alex says. “There’s no me without you. Not anymore.” Alex turns, fully facing her again. “So please,” she begs. Desperate. Afraid. Imploring. “Please come with us. Please, Maggie. Stay living. With us.”
She doesn’t have to say it, because Maggie knows it, but she says it anyway.
“I love you, Maggie. Please, come with us. We need you.”
She presses her forehead to Maggie’s. “I need you.”
“Yes,” Maggie finally says, because it’s the only thing she wants, and because there’s no her without Alex, either. “Yes.”
They run through the dark hallways. Kara is holding the fire and Alex has something with her that makes a very loud noise. The combination of darkness, fire, and sound means that everyone in the building is cowering in place.
They escape from the building. Kara tosses the fire onto the ground, careful to leave it on the pavement. They get directly into an official vehicle, and Maggie lays down, trying to hide herself from view. Alex drives quickly, dangerously. She’s not trained, but she must have some memories of driving from before.
No one stops them on the road. No one would dare stop The Receiver and The Receiver-in-training. Especially not when they’re looking so grim and intimidating.
After a few moments, they arrive at the cargofield, where aircraft take off and land for trade with other communities.
They sprint from the car, and Alex leads them into an airplane.
“Is there a pilot?” Maggie asks, breathless and afraid and a little bit exhilarated from not being murdered.
“I have memories of being a pilot,” Alex tells her. “We both do.”
Maggie thinks back to the drive, and hopes this goes a little more smoothly.
Kara quickly starts pressing buttons. Alex reaches out and grabs Maggie, pulling her in again.
“You saved me,” Maggie whispers into Alex’s hair.
“I promised,” Alex tells her. And then Alex pulls her in even closer, and moves her face until it’s right up against Maggie’s. Their lips touch.
Maggie feels more wanting inside her body than she ever has. It's like her dark place is lighting up and sending off waves of heat, like the fire.
Alex’s hands are cool on her cheeks, and Alex’s body is warm up against Maggie’s.
After two beautiful, perfect breaths, Alex pulls back.
“Okay?” she asks, her hands still on Maggie’s cheeks.
“Perfect,” Maggie beams.
Alex grins. “That is...that is so much better than any memory of it.”
Maggie grins back. “Then I guess we’ll have to do it again some time.”
But before they can, Kara’s voice rings out. “Alex! Stop kissing and come help me!”
They both laugh. Alex presses her lips again to Maggie’s - kisses her – just for a second.
“Coming,” she says, and she moves quickly over to Kara, sitting down and starting to touch the controls.
It’s jerky, but they start moving. First forward, and then soon up.
It's terrifying. Too fast, too far. Too high.
They don’t know where they’re going. They don’t know how far their community’s Department of Justice can reach. They don’t know where Sameness ends – if Sameness ends. If they can find somewhere to live with color and music and love and no pills.
They don’t know how long they can fly before they’re shot down or run out of fuel or have to make a dangerous landing.
But Kara is laughing (“Alex, it’s so much different from the memories!”) and Alex seems to know what she’s doing enough to keep them in the air for a while. Maggie loves them both.
And Maggie is still living.
This has been an incredibly difficult piece to write. The idea came to me after one (of many) conversations about The Giver with my sister and my wife. I tried not to write it, but it wouldn't stop screaming in my head until I gave in. The plot came easily, but it was one of the hardest things I've ever written.
Writing a love story in a world without similes, without hyperboles, without popular culture (or any culture), without exaggeration, without history, without music, without comparison. A narrator who doesn't see colors, doesn't touch, barely has feelings, doesn't think about food, and doesn't know words like intimate, anguish, betrayal, or love. A narrator who has spent more than 25 years indoctrinated into Sameness. And if you've read my writing before, you know all of those things are crucial to how I write.
Not to mention mixing two super different canons together and getting these two women to fall in love with each other (and realize it).
It has been an immense challenge, so I'm even more grateful than usual (which is really saying something) for you reading this story, and letting me know what you think. You're the best. And now I'm off to get a smack.