FANFIC: For the Ones We Leave Behind – B is for Byzantine

Warnings (for this and later chapters): disordered eating, self-mutilation, drug abuse. Dark themes and heavy subject matter in general. Nothing too explicit, but please proceed with caution if you are triggered by these types of things.

Byzantine |ˈbizənˌtēn; bəˈzan-; -ˌtīn|
adjective
• (of a system or situation) excessively complicated, typically involving a great deal of administrative detail
• characterized by deviousness or underhanded procedure

I. PROLOGUE
II. B IS FOR BYZANTINE

i.

Rule 1: There can only be one Archivist at any given time.

Rule 2: A new Archivist is chosen every fifty years or so.

Rule 3: Archivists do not marry; they do not have children.

Rule 4: After they finish school, archivists live in isolation at an undisclosed location.

Rule 5: Archivists are the ones who record and write our histories, the ones who make sure we don’t disappear when we die.

They’re thirteen years old when the rumors start circulating, sixteen when they actually become a reality.  The official announcement comes courtesy of GG, as if it were one of her usual gossip blasts: Attention New New Yorkers, do I have a secret to share with you!  The new Archivist has been chosen and tomorrow you will hear the first clue.  Can anybody guess who?  You know you love me, GG.

Not everyone wants to be The Archivist.  In fact, some are terrified they will somehow be chosen in an egregious error, and they do whatever they can to avoid standing out during the selection process.  Many prefer to stay in the background, to blend in with the rest of society, surrounded by people.  Others just want to live a “normal” life, even if it’s one that was planned for them.  And still others simply have never had the desire to write.

Being the Archivist means responsibility and sacrifice.

Sure, in exchange for their dedication they reap the rewards: a typewriter and a bottomless supply of paper and ink.  For those children who always loved words and itched to put them to paper, this is their only chance.  If they perform their duties to TPTB’s satisfaction, they are permitted to write whatever they want in their free time.  And with dictatorial approval, these writings may even be bound into a book and shared with the rest of the community.  But the truth is, an audience matters very little for most of these individuals, who have had a passion for storytelling since they began their schooling.  They just want to write.  For them, being the Archivist means the prospect of a bright future.  It means not going crazy in a mental institution, and not ending up in prison for violating one of the community’s strictest rules.

But B wrinkles her nose in distaste when the news first comes in.  “Who wants a rusty old typewriter anyway?” she says loudly, knowing perfectly well who does.

They all see the faded photograph.  It’s a frightening mechanism, a monstrous mass of interconnected metal parts: gauges and dials and switches in dull grays and eggshell whites.  She can’t help thinking that something about it looks dangerous.  That in the hands of the wrong person, that thing could be their undoing.  Even so, she finds it beautiful in a twisted sort of way.  Her hands reach out involuntarily, aching to touch one of the levers.  The letter A is on a button to the left… and B, of course, there on the bottom, C next to it, and above that, a D…  But she pushes the thoughts out of her head almost immediately after they enter.  After a few moments, she realizes her hands are hanging awkwardly in mid-air and she quickly uses them to smooth her hair down.

They’re always watching.  She knows that by now.

ii.

As always, TPTB remains a mystery.

This much is obvious: They are the ones who make the rules, who give the orders.  They are the ones who are always watching.

That’s all people really know.  Everyone has a theory about what the letters stand for, or what they mean.  Toilet Paper, Toilet Bowl, N jokes in a loud whisper, snickering and looking furtively around for the cameras before bowing his head.  The Problem Truth Brings.  Trusting People Takes Balls.

B rolls her eyes at all of the speculation and ensuing silliness.  As a child, she always dreamt that TPTB were in actuality an exclusive group of four ordinary people (two T’s, a P, and a B, naturally) who had been selected to join the group after their respective graduations, as opposed to being placed in the usual mundane jobs.  “I’m going to be the B in TPTB someday,” she used to tell people.

S would try to remind her that their careers would be chosen for them when they finished with school, and to their knowledge nobody had ever been invited to become one of the powerful elite: “I just don’t want you to be disappointed, B. I mean, we don’t even know what TPTB is.”  She sounded so sincere and genuinely concerned for her friend.  But B knew she didn’t really understand.

As the years pass, it hardly seems to matter anymore.  Those were the days of lofty goals and impossible dreams.  When B was younger, she thought she could do anything.  Now things have changed.  A is gone.  B is expected to take over as the Class leader.  It’s what she’s always wanted—to be the Queen B—but she doesn’t think she knows how to anymore.

iii.

Attention New New Yorkers, and Good Morning, Class 1111.  A disembodied voice greets them at the start of every day, words emanating from a speaker at the front of the Classroom.  After a few years, they come to know that tantalizing voice truly well.  GG teases them with gossip about broken rules and secret alliances, always in her trademark riddles or rhymes or clever wordplay.  She seems to know everything about their lives and she’s willing to spill so that the whole city knows too.

Some like that the dirt she dishes helps keep them on the straight and narrow.  Others wear GG mentions like a merit badges on their blazers, as if they are something to be proud of.

B falls somewhere in the middle, depending on her mood.  Either way, she can’t help but notice that certain incidents involving herself continue to go unnoticed every time the feed comes in each morning.

For reasons unknown, D is hardly ever mentioned at all.

iv.

On the first Sunday of every month, everyone in 1111 is required to attend the appropriate Letter Party.  These gatherings are TPTB’s way of fostering a sense of community between residents of all ages who share the same Letter, including those adults who have long since aged out and chosen a proper name for themselves.  The idea is that they should serve as mentors for the ones who are young, still floundering and trying to find their way.

There are about a million reasons B hate these parties.  First of all, B’s are bad company in general.  They are bitter and jealous types.  Bitter because of how close they were to being on the top of the Class, jealous because she made it to the top anyway, after the unfortunate circumstances surrounding A’s departure.

But mostly she hates the parties because it means Dorothea, her mother’s younger sister, is always teasing her about D.  B often thinks of the woman as a second mother.  After all, Dorothea was practically the one who raised B when Eleanor was working long hours at office every night, away from home.

“Mister D is growing into such a charming and intelligent young man,” Dorothea says nonchalantly after each party.  “Very handsome now, too.  Not so goofy-looking anymore.  Don’t you think, Miss B?”

And B sets her mouth in a firm line and tries her best not to lose her composure.  “No, I don’t, Dorothea.  You know that.  Out of all the people at that party, why must you always insist on talking about him?!”

Dorothea responds simply by raising her eyebrows.  “Fine, Miss B.  I will not mention him any longer.”  But then she nods and gives B a knowing smile, and a month later it is more of the same again: “I spoke to Mister D again tonight.  You want to hear what he told me?”

After a while, B gives up trying to reason with her aunt, just tunes her out and doesn’t try to protest.

v.

Naturally, S is the one who then bears the brunt of B’s frustration with D.

“How could anyone ever think that he and I would be a good match!  I can’t even put into words how absurd it is.  He’s just…he has to have a theory about everything and I swear to God he never shuts up,” she complains, full of pent-up rage.  “You’ve been in Class with him.  Just imagine all that”—she sticks out her tongue and makes hand motions like words flying out at an alarming rate—“all that, times…times infinity!”

S laughs lightly like she’s heard it all a hundred times, and she probably has.  Her eyes crinkle into half-moons that mirror her easy smile.

“What?” B snaps, pouting a little.  “It’s true, and it’s not funny.  You’re my best friend.  I thought you were supposed to be on my side.”

“I am,” S says with a hint of amusement.  “You don’t have to get all worked up about it.  Anyway, so what if he’s different from most guys?  I think he’s sweet.”

“Oh, really?”  B scoffs.  “No, of course you do.  You would, with the way he used to follow you around like a little puppy dog.”

“B!”

“Anyway, I guess you’d rather be with him then.  Well!  You obviously have my blessing.”  She laughs, a little too loudly.

“You know that’s not the way it works,” S says, her voice soft, grin fading.

But B barrels on, as if she hasn’t heard: “It’s not like I would miss all those afternoons of forced conversation,”—she laughs at the mere thought of it—“while he babbles his way through whatever ridiculous notions enter his head, nevermind that no one cares or even understands what on Earth he’s going on about, and why should I be the one—”

“B,” S interrupts finally, “seriously, calm down.  You act as if being with him causes you physical pain.”

B glares at her, a spark in her eyes that could set fire to us all.  “No, of course not.”  She pauses.  “This is even worse.

vi.

She would never admit this to anyone, but sometimes she wishes she could be more like S.  She would love to be carefree with a perpetually sunny disposition: the kind of girl who walks through a windstorm and emerges without a strand of corn-silk hair out of place.  In a way, S is a contradiction.  Somehow, some way, she straddles the thin line that separates worldliness and childlike innocence.  She doesn’t even seem to notice the effect she has on people, which makes it hard for B to stay mad at her for long.

S is what most people would probably call a wild child in the old days.  She is the exact opposite of B: she swallows the rules and regulations that TPTB feed her, she accepts the world they live in and the fact that her destiny is predetermined, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to rebel and have a little fun.  It doesn’t mean she isn’t going to spit out the pills that they’re all supposed to take daily, the ones that are designed to make them feel numb in every possible way—mentally, emotionally, sexually.

“So what was it like?  Not taking the pills?  I mean, why is it so important that we take them every day?” B’s fingers toy with the fork in her hand as she pushes the food around on her plate and she tries her best to sound nonchalant but her breath catches in her throat mid-sentence and it sounds like a lie, even to herself.  There was a time when she could convince herself of anything, no matter how outrageous and unbelievable.  She isn’t sure when that changed.

But S only shrugs, in that lazy way that suggests she really is indifferent.  Nothing fazes her.  “I don’t know, B.  It’s hard to explain.”  But she searches for the words anyway:  She tries to describe how she feels off-balance.  She tries to describe the current that runs through her core like a jolt of electricity.  The way her body hums with anticipation.  Anticipation of what, she isn’t certain.  She stumbles over her words when she talks about the rushes of sadness and happiness and anger, the mood swings that they were never taught how to handle.  And she talks about her future husband, the one who was picked out for her years ago when she was a baby, before the umbilical cord had even been severed.  They’ve never been taught how to talk about this—about feelings or desires or the everyday things that simply can’t be translated into words.  “It was like I woke up,” S says slowly.  “Like I’d been asleep a really long time and I finally woke up.”  She hesitates.  “And suddenly I wanted to touch him.  I felt like I wanted to—” S sighs and clasps her hands together, intertwining her fingers, because she doesn’t know how else to describe it—“I wanted us to—” and she shrugs in lieu of a proper conclusion to her story.  “That’s what it was like.”

B continues to eat as S talks, sloppy and fervent bites that would probably worry S if she weren’t so distracted by her own story.  B doesn’t know why the words make her so hungry.  And she doesn’t know why the food isn’t making the hunger go away.  “So what happened exactly?”  If her eyes are expectant, if S can see how curious she is, she no longer cares.  She is the exact opposite of S because unlike S, she lies in the darkness every night and questions this society’s leaders and rules and their fabricated histories.  But she would never stop taking those pills.  The truth is, she has become too fond of not feeling.

S looks away for a brief moment, as if she is embarrassed.  S is never embarrassed.  “We…you know, we kissed.”  She unlaces her fingers and brings her hands together so that only her fingertips are touching.

B has seen two people kiss one another, but only in the films she knows she probably isn’t supposed to be watching.  Even when her parents do it, as she assumes they do, it is behind closed doors.  And so she makes a face at S’s gesture.  “That’s gross.”

S purses her lips.  “Are you sure you want me to tell you all of this?”  The more she describes that forbidden encounter, the more outrageous it seems.  “What do you and D usually do together anyway?” she asks, knowing it will open a can of worms, another endless diatribe that how incompatible B and D are, and how irritating his incessant chatter is, and how he could really, really use a haircut.

“Nothing,” is all B says.  “We hate each other, remember?  We don’t do anything together.”  She dabs at her mouth with a white napkin.  “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”  She hurries out of the room without so much as a glance at S.

Inside the empty room with tiled walls, B twists the knob of the sink faucet to the left until she hears a rush of water, and she stares at her reflection in the mirror.  She wears one hand around her throat like a necklace, her thumb and middle finger reaching to find the pulse at either side of her neck, her palm against the hollow below her throat.  She breathes in, she breathes out, and then in again.  Her heart pounds inside her chest.  She doesn’t twist the knob in the other direction before turning her back to her own face.

When B enters the toilet stall, she slides the latch into place until she hears its satisfying click, metal meeting metal.  It’s the sound of being locked inside, the sound of being in control, the sound of being in a safe place.  She looks to the ceiling before pulling back her hair and dropping to her knees.

The water runs for a long time.

vii.

At night, lying in bed under the covers, B thinks back to the scene that S described, but substitutes D and herself in their places instead.  “Gross,” she repeats to no one, “just gross.”  Not only the kissing but the fact that she is imagining it, and with D of all people.  She doesn’t know why.  What she does know is that she spends the rest of the night trying to purge the image from her mind.  If only it were as easy as sticking a finger down her throat.

And so she thinks back further: she starts to rearrange letters in her head the way D used to during Class, putting people into groups according to the words their letters formed together.  S-C-A-B.  S-A-D.  B-E-D.  B-A-D.  But that makes her think of A, which makes her think of C, which makes her think of D again, and it’s all too much right now so she covers her eyes with her open hands like that will make it go away.

The next morning, she wakes up late, her bare legs tangled in the sheets, and she doesn’t quite remember her dreams.  All she hears is her best friend’s voice reverberating in her head like a distant echo: What do you and Dan usually do together, anyway?

vii.

Mostly, they watch movies.  Her father has a whole stash of them locked away in the attic.  These are old VHS tapes with the muddy ribbons inside that seem to go on forever, hidden in their unwieldy and unattractive plastic shells, the moving pictures and sounds unwinding and then winding again on the other side.  And all they have to do is press play.  She’s pretty sure most of the titles are outlawed now, but they take the risk in an attempt fill the silence that wells up between them.  They take the risk so they don’t have to talk, so they aren’t constantly aware of the other’s close proximity, and how that makes them feel.  Or even the fact that it makes them feel anything at all.

The morning after, she always halfway expects a blast from GG to come through the feed (Spotted: B and D spending their Quality Time together partaking in illegal substances) but it never does.  She always halfway expects TPTB to infiltrate the house and remove the tapes from her attic, but they never do.

Sometimes, she wonders why.  But most of the time, she’s just grateful that, for now at least, the private screenings remain their secret from the rest of the world.  She would never admit it out loud, but she doesn’t think there’s anything she enjoys more.  And the most troubling part, the part that she would never even admit silently, to her own self: she doesn’t think those afternoons would be quite the same if she had to share them with someone else.

viii.

On the weekends, they wash dishes together.  It doesn’t make any practical sense, as she constantly points out to anyone who will listen.  The dishwashers next to the sink work just as well, if not better.  But according to TPTB, or GG—or whoever is supposedly watching, she doesn’t even know anymore—these menial chores will prepare the two of them for their ever-impending domestic life together.

“I don’t understand why we have to do this.”  B knows she complains about this every week, but she can’t help it.

D doesn’t reply, just gives her that warning look like he wants to stab her with a knife if she ever utters those words in his proximity again.  “Who do you think the new Archivist will be?” he says instead, his voice straining to remain casual and nonchalant.

She snorts.  “What, you still think it’s going to be you?”

And then he’s silent for a long minute, and he’s looking down and biting his lip, and she wishes for just a moment that she hadn’t been so harsh.  “Yeah, maybe I do,” he says in a quiet voice.  “Why not?  I mean, is it really such a crazy thought?”

Why not?  Because, she thinks.  Because they’ve talked about this before.  They’ve talked about how Archivists don’t get married.  About how they spend the rest of their lives in isolation.  About how their intended spouses are re-matched with someone else.  In her case, there is a perfect candidate already waiting in the wings: C is alone.  C has been alone since A left.  And what situation could be more perfect considering the history between the three of them?  But maybe she doesn’t want that anymore.  Maybe the thought of D leaving confuses her, and maybe the fact that it confuses her, confuses her even more.  She never knows what to think anymore.  But she doesn’t say any of this aloud.  “What makes you think you have what it takes to be The Archivist?” she says instead, her voice abrasive.  “You’re just like the rest of us.  You’ve never written anything.” She doesn’t hesitate to point out that little fact, lest it has gotten lost in the ever-growing fog of his hopeless dreams.  “And scratching D loves S into the dirt with a fallen tree branch?  Doesn’t count.”  She scrubs the bottom of a frying pan until her knuckles turn bone-white and her joints start to ache.

Again he doesn’t say anything, and if she didn’t know any better, she might think she’s hurt his feelings.  She wishes she could take it back, if only to hear him talk again, freely, like he can’t stop the words from appearing, one after another.  The way he used to.  “Wait, how do you even know about—” he finally starts, but then stops, realizing it doesn’t really matter how she knows.  “It’s not like that,” he says instead, and it’s not at all what she expects.

What’s not like what??” She pounces on his cryptic statement immediately.  Because arguing with him is better than the alternative.  Because arguing with him is what’s familiar.  If she tries to decipher the implications of what he has just said, she’ll be thrown into a world full of unknowns.  Her shoulders tremble at the thought and she tries to distract him from noticing by launching into another diatribe.  “See, this is what I mean, D.  How can you be a writer if you pay no mind to specificity, to clarity?”

But he doesn’t let her derail the conversation.  Maybe he knows her too well and her face burns at the thought.  “Me and S,” he clarifies.  “Why do you always have to bring it up?  It isn’t like that.”

And she shakes her head at that.  “It’s always been like that.  It’ll always be like that.”  A pause.  “Not just with you.  With everybody.  She can’t even help it, it’s who she is.”  The words are out before she knows it.  She tries to take them back—sucks air into her mouth and swallows—but speech doesn’t work that way.

“She was a childhood fascination.  That’s all.”  He turns his face towards hers, so that she can’t escape those dark pools he has for eyes.  She half expects him to go for the easy kill, to bring up her own questionable past, but he doesn’t.  He doesn’t even mention C.  Or N.

They don’t speak for what seems like hours.  The dish soap foams around their hands in a mountain of weightless bubbles, her fingers wrinkling like dried fruit.

He shakes his head in defeat.  “Look, let’s just finish these dishes, so we can go back to trying to ignore each other, okay?”

And she nods at that suggestion.  For once, she doesn’t argue with him.

Why do you hate me so much? he asked her once, his serious tone startling her.  I mean, honestly.  Why are we incapable of getting along?

She brushed off the question like the answer was obvious.  Because we just don’t work together.  We have nothing in common.  And that was it.  That was a good enough reason for her.  End of story.

He nodded thoughtfully at that explanation.  But then he said, you know, you and S don’t have anything in common either.  And the two of you are best friends.

Sometimes she thinks that they hate each other more out of habit than anything else.

ix.

She tries to remember a time when they were still kids and she followed orders blindly and didn’t question any of it.

Both A and C were constantly absent from Class, each with their own reasons.  A often spent weeks at a time in hospitals, recovering from illnesses that sent her to the ER in the middle of the night.  Even though the doctors administered tests and prescribed medications and were constantly changing her diet, she remained thin and frail, her immune system weak.  As for C, it was clear that he had no interest in school.  His father couldn’t control him, and didn’t try.  And once GG realized that her attempts to humiliate him by airing out his dirty laundry every morning were futile, it seemed like she stopped trying too.

There is one memory B never forgets.  It happened on a rare day when A was present, though not such a rare day that C was there in Class as well.  In fact, the two of them seemed to coordinate their absences in a way that meant they were hardly ever seen together.

There was a lull of silence during the group project that they had been assigned when D suddenly spoke up.

We’re BAD together, he said, looking up at the two girls.

A only stared at him, a look of confusion evident on her pale face.

B sighed with exasperation.  Just what are you going on about now?

The three of us.  B—he pointed at her—and A—he pointed at the other girl—and me, D—he tapped a finger at his own chest.  Bad.

B rolled her eyes, her patience waning.  What a fascinating observation, D, she remembers saying through gritted teeth.  Can we get back to our assignment now?

Maybe she was imagining things, but the half-smile on his face looked suspiciously like a smirk.  By all means, B.  Why don’t you lead the way, since you seem to think we would all be lost without you?  His eyes never left her face.

A week later, the new test results came back for A.  According to the doctors, she had been diagnosed with leukemia.  There was still no cure.  That was the beginning of the end for them.  Little by little, their foundation was crumbling.

x.

When the announcement is made, when GG finally tires of her riddles and games and D is handpicked to become the new Archivist, B lets out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

Her throat tightens as he approaches her to say goodbye.  “I guess we got what we both always wanted,” she says.

His silence at those words startles her and she remembers that day, washing dishes at his place, when she had started to doubt.  She swallows, tries again.

“We talked about this…right?” she says, her voice faltering a little.  “I mean, you always said you wanted…and I wanted…we both wanted…”  She trails off.

He regards her with an unreadable expression on his face.  “Right.”  He rubs the back of his neck in a nervous gesture.  “We both did.”

She wants to congratulate him for realizing his dreams, but all that comes out is a strangled cough.  She clears her throat, her eyes pleading.  For what, she doesn’t know.

“Take care, B.”  He takes one last look at S—who is standing to the side, trying to hide the tears that she shouldn’t be crying—before turning back to B and forcing a smile.  “Just…take care.”

And then the law enforcement brigade comes, in their regulation black clothing and their distinctive, wide-brimmed hats.  She watches as they throw a burlap sack over D’s head and lead him away.  “This is a little excessive, isn’t it?”  B hears the uncertainty in his faint muffled voice as he speaks one last time, and then he’s gone, the door closing behind him.

Nine months of summer training.  He’ll be back next spring, at least until they finish school and then he’ll be gone for good.  She feels a strange absence somewhere near the pit of her stomach, like a vital organ that has gone missing from her body without a trace.  She doesn’t know what to tell herself.  Did she want it after all?  Was she hoping that she would be the one chosen?  Was she hoping that she was the special one?  Or did she secretly not want him to leave?  She chooses to stay in denial.  She tells herself what she needs to.

A part of her already misses him when she sees his empty seat in Class the next day, but that’s crazy and it makes no sense.  The debilitating, yawning blackhole stretches wider and wider inside her body.  And she starts to wonder too many things.  She wonders why she can’t pinpoint where exactly the hole is, and why her first impulse is to fill it with caviar and filet mignon and pumpkin pie.  She wonders when the pills stopped working and when she started feeling things that don’t have names.  She doesn’t know the answer to any of those questions, and so she returns to the familiar: she asks to be excused and once again she seeks refuge in the only place she can.  And she locks herself away.

III. U IS FOR YOU

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