He didn’t go to her school. He didn’t live in her neighbourhood. She’d never seen him around town. Silverbirch was small and encroaching. The streets were never fully empty, even if there were no people. But, he’d soon find that out anyway, whoever he was. His eyes, almond shaped and dark brown like her own. His face was shaped like hers—round with a slightly pointed chin. His skin was deep brown too, but was much clearer than hers. Hers had freckles and acne scars. They both tucked the curly natural tufts of hair resting above the ear behind it, not breaking eye contact. Marlowe froze, and clenched her fist to stop it from trembling. Her heartbeat sped up but she refused to stop looking. Who was he?
Could it be?
He wore a grey uniform with silver tie. And she, navy blue with a dark blue tie. He looked familiar to her but she couldn’t figure out from where. They continued to stare at each other. His frame began to ripple, the outline of his body, faded into pixels that flittered away from his form. She stepped back, her eyes still fixed on him.
The wrist bracelet she wore, black with a rubber wristband and the screen displayed the current time, vibrated, breaking her gaze with his.
“Warning. Error 201: A user with the same username already exists.”
When she looked up, he was gone. She blinked away tears and continued along—she was late for class. The screen of her wrist bracelet went black before restarting again.
“Good morning, Marlowe. You’re going to have a wonderful day at school today,” said a voice from above as Marlowe entered through the school’s doors.
She looked up at the console tucked into the rafters and shivered before continuing on through the hallway.
She pulled her phone out of her backpack.
No new messages.
No word from her best friend Lucy since last week and Marlowe was struggling to remember what they’d talked about. Marlowe never sent very detailed messages using her phone, it wasn’t safe. Still, they made a habit of letting each other know where they were and if they were okay. Her phone had tons of vague messages that said “here” or “almost there.” She never saved the names of her friends to their numbers. She just had to trust that there would be enough character, slang or other clues, no matter how few words, to figure out who the message was from.
It’d been ten years since the raid, but that wasn’t the topic in today’s history class or any that came before it. The progression and merit of technology were plotted through a rather boring presentation. There were handouts and diagrams but her classmates’ words just washed over her like the seas she crossed when she was wrenched from her home. Marlowe sunk deeper into her chair, tapping through the pop quiz questions on her tablet without reading them. She thought of her real home and her last day there. Sometimes, she could still smell the cocoa butter that covered her skin and the sounds of waves crashing. Sometimes she remembers their harsh, deep voices. Her mouth wide open, but she couldn’t remember the sounds of her own screams.
Marlowe knew that there was someone out there who looked like her and told herself one day, she’d find him. The others told her to give up. Very few people were found after the raid, they said. She should have been happy she made it, they said. But, Marlowe wasn’t naive. She knew that some people never made it. And others? Well, they disappeared suddenly and were never spoken of again. They wanted—needed—to go back, dead or alive.
“Everyone” said the teacher, staring at her. “That’s lunch. Next time, we’ll continue our exploration of technology.” Marlowe avoided the teacher’s gaze as she snatched her bag and headed for the cafeteria.
The cafeteria was always filled with people, heads down, not speaking to one another. Their eyes were fixed on their cellphone screens. Competing vibrations or notifications from each phone were so prevalent that it was hard to tell who was doing what on their phone. Some people laughed so hard they snorted, others screamed out in frustration—or at least that’s what their faces seemed to be doing between beeps and buzzing—and others sobbed, barely able to catch their breath and their white faces now crimson and tear soaked. They would sit staring at their phones until the lunch bell rang. No one ever looked up from their phone once it rang, they just kept walking, heads down, reacting. Normally, Marlowe never sat in the caf—too much drama—but she wanted to find out more information about Lucy.
At Silverbirch Prep School, it was Marlowe and her crew. The only black kids in a mostly white prep school, together they formed The Decentres. Though they didn’t know it initially, they had more in common than they ever could imagine. Riley was forever the skeptic. That guy thought absolutely everything was a conspiracy. Arlo knew everything about technology, and how to manipulate it for his own gain. They always joked that he could crush this whole stupid system with one line of code. Compared to them, Marlowe was the optimist: no matter how fucked up shit got, she knew there had to be something else out there because she was one hundred percent sure that there was. Though Marlowe was close with Riley and Arlo, she only considered Lucy her best friend. Lucy knew things and what it felt like to lose someone. They’d stay up late and talk about what life was like before the raid and what life would be like if they went back. The guys were smart, but they couldn’t envision the future of being back there like Lucy could. Lucy gave her hope that she’d find him, one day. Ten years to the day after the raid—was it possible none of this was a coincidence or an accident? Marlowe’s phone buzzed.
“Look for the code.”
Marlowe scanned the cafeteria, her eyes darting from surface to surface to find the code. Her eyes stopped at the whiteboard. Under the “Meal of the Day,” sat black squares arranged in a grid. Her phone positioned above the code, the message emerged in block letters that floated above the surface of the screen: “Young area woman in Silverbirch, Lucille Hawthorne, reported missing. Described by her parents as great student and a community volunteer, the police have no leads.” Her friend was missing. The letters faded and then disappeared.
Heads faced downward, tapping furiously at their phones, they didn’t notice Marlowe was even there. The clock read 12:10 pm and the lunchtime politics were gearing up. Even though no one talked to each other directly, where they sat and who they were pictured with was important. They posed together with their cellphones raised at awkward angles hoping to catch their best sides: lips pouting, muscles flexed, animations that improved lighting, skin tone, or applied make up. They wanted to be seen, validated by notifications, hearts or likes were symbols of worth. Marlowe once saw someone devastated after their post had been up for several minutes: no likes. They lay their head on the table, and sobbed.
“Trixie,” whispered Marlowe. “Show me the news about Lucy.”
The screen on her wrist bracelet flickered.
“I’m sorry,” said Trixie. The undulations of her voice appeared like a heart monitor, the pulses in blood crimson danced across the screen. “Error. The news you have requested is invalid.” “Ouch,” said Marlowe, wincing as she tugged at the wrist bracelet. She tried to loosen it and the small rectangular screen sparked and sizzled. A red triangle appeared on the screen. “Error 403: Access Denied.”
Marlowe’s phone buzzed.
“Meet us. Now.”
She snatched her book bag and raced down the hall past a sea of students moving in a distorted two step, bumping into each other with their eyes glued to their phones. She looked at her phone again. 12:30. There were only fifteen minutes before the end of lunch.
She pushed on the door and fiddled for a switch. Dim light flooded the theatre. She looked at her phone: no reception. Riley and Arlo sat beside each other, smiling from the stage.
“You guys look creepy. Why were you sitting in the dark?” she asked, dropping her book bag.
“SHHH,” hissed Riley. “They’ll hear you.”
Marlowe laughed, softly. “Who will?”
Riley rolled his eyes and thrust his arms up in exasperation before tapping his temple.
“The same fucking people who microchipped us.”
Marlowe paused before rubbing her own temple, her finger tips paused over the scar tissue that never healed.
“I…guess I didn’t think—”
“Yeah, that’s what they’re hoping we’ll do,” said Riley, shaking his head. He gestured towards Arlo and soon sounds of jazzy hip-hop beats filled the room.
“Nice. Old school,” said Marlowe.
“Always. It’s a classic soundtrack for these desperate times.”
“Did you see the news?”
Riley and Arlo nodded.
“Obviously,” said Arlo, tapping his tablet. She hopped up on stage and sat beside him. The view was split into multiple sections, with a green tinge overlaid on the video footage. Different parts of the school, including the cafeteria, were shown on screen.
Marlowe stared at Arlo. His eyes were deep brown and warm behind his black framed glasses. He looked away, tucking one of his dreads behind his ear and pushing his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose.
“Arlo… how did you get this footage?” said Marlowe.
“Does it matter where I got it?” said Arlo. “They’re watching us constantly. Why wouldn’t we watch them?”
She furrowed her brows and rubbed the skin underneath the wrist bracelet, the skin still sore from the zaps earlier.
“Ethical debate aside folks, there’s footage of Lucy leaving school late Friday—”
“That was three days ago. She could be anywhere or—”
They sat in silence.
“What about the towers?” she asked. “Like, throughout the city?”
Arlo and Riley exchanged a look.
Arlo’s eyes widened.
“I mean, technically there’s nowhere to disappear from in this town. There’s too many cameras. Unless—but that’s—”
“Anything is possible, even the worst of whatever you’re thinking, Arlo,” said Riley.
“I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but there might be a way to find out. Meet at the usual spot at midnight and make sure you aren’t followed,” said Arlo, looking directly at Marlowe.
She bit her lip.
“Can we meet later? I used to just say I was sleeping over at Lucy’s, but now…”
“Okay. Meet after dark. That should be 6 or 7.”
There was a banging at the door. All three of them jumped.
They’re watching us constantly. Why wouldn’t we watch them?
“It’s the drama club.”
Riley groaned. “Just what the world needs right now. Another mediocre high school production. Boy meets girl, boy is a douchebag. Spare me.”
Marlowe and Arlo snorted.
They opened the door to face the drama club, all aspiring actors for the even smaller screen—your phone.
A tall boy in a red blazer with shiny gold buttons waved her over. His hair was slick and parted to the left, there was a red silk pocket square tucked into his breast pocket, and the school’s crest embroidered on his right side.
Marlowe swore under her breath while Riley and Arlo laughed and waved before leaving.
“Yeah,” he said, his eyes flashing. “You’ve known me since grade 2.”
“I gotta go,” she said, avoiding his gaze. “Lunch is over.”
“What’s going on? You, Riley, Arlo and Lucy are always together. Can I come sometime?”
“You wouldn’t—couldn’t—understand. Maybe we can go get a coffee sometime… away from here.”
“Okay, great!” he said, handing her a flyer. “You should really join the Student Watch Group, the SWGs. We keep students safe!”
“Even Lucy?” said Marlowe, her eyebrows raised.
His face became the same shade as his blazer and formed a frown.
“We cooperated with the authorities—we should be united as students here! We also have our own social page—”
“All you guys are is a bunch of student snitches,” she said, in a sibilant, crumpling up the flyer.
“We have thousands of followers,” he said, screeching. “We had to start our own social network. What do you guys have? NOTHING.”
Marlowe watched as he stormed off, pushing his way into a sea of navy blue uniforms.
Later, the final bell reverberated through the door of the classroom. Swarms of navy blue forged into the hallway. Marlowe sat, ankles crossed and waited. The teacher stared at her for a few minutes before packing up her briefcase and leaving the room.
Marlowe sat alone for a while until the lights clicked off. She wondered what Arlo might find. It scared her to know that someone could vanish, especially in this world. The clock ticked in the background and she turned on her phone to wake it from sleep mode several times.
No one messaged her.
She continued to sit in the darkness while the clock kept ticking. Marlowe tried to remember their last conversation, Lucy’s voice and soft whisper floating in her head.
What did they discuss and why couldn’t she remember? What if it was important and would tell her where it was? What if Arlo isn’t able to find enough information figure everything out? Her wrist bracelet buzzed.
“Error 619: Invalid Introspection. Would you like to send an error report?”
“Fuck no,” she whispered aloud, while dismissing the message.
Eventually, the hallway lights dimmed until it too was dark. Her cellphone buzzed, an alarm clock buzzing on screen.
It was time.
The hallway was empty and Marlowe walked slowly to not trigger the lights above. It was safer to leave in darkness. She looked behind her. Make sure you aren’t followed. The hallway was still empty but there was something she’d never seen before plastered on the wall. A group of them stood in red blazers and satin red ties with their arms crossed. A bar code sat underneath and she took out her phone and took a photograph. “We protect you” in large text popped out from the poster. She spat at the poster, letting the gauzy grey spittle drip down the paper before she ripped it down. She crumbled it in her hands into tight ball, the grooves of the crumpled paper dug into her palm before she threw it on the ground and kicked it.
The lamplights illuminated the tree lined streets, even at 4 pm. Riley’s running theory was they did it to better monitor them—those they captured and placed here after the raid. The cold crisp of autumn coursed through the air sending chills through her bones and the smell of wet leaves through her nostrils.
Marlowe pulled the straps of her backpack closer to her. She often wondered how many of them there were. It was pure luck that she managed to find a few of them at Silverbirch. Together, they swapped stories—haunting her—of the night it happened. She was too small to retain every memory from that night. The Decentres helped fill in the gaps. Lucy seemed to know more. Maybe that’s why she disappeared—Lucy just knew too much. Marlowe remembered the first day she came to this stupid town. For many years, there was no one who looked like her. Kids put gum in her hair—which they called a bird’s nest—they spat in her face and said her skin looked like mud. The first day at Silverbirch is when she met the gang. Over time, and away from school, they swapped and compared stories. Each one, a horrific retelling of the night they were snatched. She closed her eyes, thinking of the lush black earth and the sea that looked like shards of cut obsidian and glimmered under the silver moonlight. She and him played along shores, picking up seashells, waiting for their parents to call for them. One day, their parents never came. Men in boots and red coats stormed the shores, picking them one by one. They spat at them like the children here, too. She couldn’t remember exactly what they said, that’s when her brain got foggy, and went dark. She never saw him again.
Marlowe walked by herself because the rest of The Decentres lived closer to each other. Riley in particular, refused to go with her because in her neighbourhood, someone was always watching. He’d tell her in their neighbourhood, they were too distracted by gadgets to care what was going on beyond their four walls.
She kept walking. People in their houses would watch her as she walked by. Some would hold their children closer, as if Marlowe would snatch them and take them to the depths of hell or worse—wherever she was plucked from. Others closed their blinds quickly, shutting themselves off to whatever danger they feared she’d bring in. Sometimes, she watched as their lips formed the word Trixie… and the clicking noise of a widening camera lens outside their homes rung in her ear. She would pull her scarf closer—regardless of season—to shield herself from the glare of the camera and the eyes of its director. When her back, taut from stiffening, and heartbeat raced, she watched them sigh with relief. Trixie was watching her. Keeping them safe. Keeping her out.
The laneways were safer, still lit by lamplights that flanked each side but no cameras or devices were attached. Ads were splashed across the buildings: marijuana, adult film streaming subscriptions, online gambling—vice. She stopped in front of an ad for Dubbel Trouble Brewing company. Two men who looked identical clinked glasses and winked at her. Marlowe stared and before long the men were frozen once again. Below the men, another code printed on the poster. Her hand trembled as she scanned the code with her phone. A smaller version of the laneways was projected above her phone, a raven hair woman ran with hoards of people chasing after her. Marlowe stepped back, her back immediately soaked with sweat and broke into a run. Her feet pounded hard against the asphalt, not looking behind her.
After rounding the corner, she saw her house. It was the only one that differed from the rest on the street. Her “parents” never explained, even after repeated questions why their home was different. Did they want everyone to know someone taken from the raid lived here?
Marlowe unlocked the door.
She walked in, only mthr was there, drinking tea.
“How was school,” asked mthr.
“Fine,” said Marlowe, shrugging. “How was work?”
“It was okay. Off early today.”
Marlowe rubbed her arm, shifting in piece.
“Well, I’m gonna do some homework. I’ll be going to the library a bit later.”
mthr stared at her.
“Okay. I was hoping we could talk later.”
Marlowe avoided her gaze, groaning.
“Yeah. Maybe another time.”
Marlowe started to climb the stairs.
“Have you heard from or seen Lucy? I’m sure you saw the news today.”
Marlowe shook her head and raced upstairs.
Her eyes started to close as the warmth and softness of her bed started to envelope her. The sweet smell of lavender took her in as she gave into the comfort of the linens.
She ran, her footsteps thundering underneath her. A crowd ran after her clad in white chinos and white cotton masks. They were screaming.
Tears streamed down her face as her heart raced and pounded hard against her chest. She gasped for breath with each painful stride, her ankles burning inside her sneakers. Breathing in deep, her gaze darting around her. Find the laneways. They can’t find you there.
Arms spread, she tumbled to the ground as a thick, hairy arm pressed against her throat. Her breath, cut off.
“Help —- me —–”
Thumbs dug into her neck, her raven lashes spread out like a Venetian fan. She blinked away tears, white waves cascading over her.
Marlowe wrenched forward in bed with her back soaked in sweat. Bursting out of the room, her stomach lurched as buttery bile coursed up her throat. Gripping the toilet seat, her back arched, she wretched.
There was a rapping at the door. The tiles were cool against her warm skin as she wiped the fresh bile from her lips with the back of her wrist.
“Marlowe, honey. Are you okay?”
She thought about not responding.
“I’m fine. I think something I had for lunch made me feel sick.”
Silence from the other side. Marlowe looked up and watched the ceiling lights pulsate. The eerie glow made her dizzy.
“No. I’m not having sex. I’ve never had sex.”
Marlowe heard the creaking of the floorboards and sighed with relief.
What if the dream wasn’t a dream? Did someone kill Lucy? Who were those people and what did they want from her?
Her pocket vibrated and she fished out her phone.
“911. Meet us in an hour.”
Marlowe raised her eyebrows.
“I can’t. Make it two.”
Her phone buzzed again.
“It’s an emergency. We found something.”
“Okay. I might be a bit late.”
She stared at herself in the mirror and rubbed the base of her neck to try and unclasped all the pins before slowly pulling off her wig. She then pulled off the nylon cap revealed tendrils of natural coils so springy they bounced as she combed through them. She pulled out an afro comb from the vanity drawer, wincing as she combed through knots and texture changes. Yanking up a black velvet jumpsuit over her hips, she zipped it up. Then, she picked up her uniform off the floor and left. The stairs creaked with each step Marlowe took.
“I’m headed to the library now,” she called.
She hopped onto her bike, fishing a wooden mask from the basket. She lay it onto her face, fastening it with the Velcro strap at the back. Raced through the laneways, her wrist bracelet buzzing furiously until it went dead.
“Error 522: Connection Timed Out. No service.”
Soon the suburbs were in the distance and there were no lamplights to light the way. Fog began to roll in as she approached a dirt road leading to a dense verdant forest. She dismounted, removed the mask and walked her bike along the path. A sharp whistle came from the trees, so she followed it. They had found a hollowed out base of a giant willow tree and Marlowe crawled in.
“What took you so long?” said Riley, his eyes flashed.
“I had a …” she said, looking at them both. “Nevermind. What’s the emergency?”
“Look at this,” said Arlo, tapping his screen.
“That’s Lucy,” said Marlowe, pointing.
“Yup,” said Riley. “Just wait.”
They watched as Lucy walked down the corridor at school and the lights flickered.
Marlowe gasped, putting her hand over her mouth.
“Wait for it,” said Arlo. “Now look.”
The playback was paused. Lucy was on screen, someone had their hand on her shoulder. The play button appeared. The footage ended.
“What the fuck! What happens after?” screeched Marlowe, eyes alight.
“SHHH!” hissed Arlo and Riley in unison.
“Sorry,” said Marlowe whispering.
What happened after the footage ends?
“I have a theory,” said Riley.
“Of course you do,” said Arlo, snickering.
“Shut up. Who would be around after school? I mean besides the janitors.”
Marlowe and Arlo exchanged looks.
“Possibly. Who else?” said Riley, starring at them both with clenched fists.
We keep students safe.
“What do you know?” said Arlo.
Marlowe snatched the tablet out of his hands.
“Look, the person who grabbed Lucy. Even though it’s black and white, the blazer should be dark like ours. Their blazer is showing up lighter.”
They sat in silence.
“How will we find out what happened? We can’t tell anyone about this,” said Marlowe.
Arlo sighed, reaching into his pocket. “I wanted you guys to see these.”
He dropped a small black box into Riley and Marlowe’s hands. There was a small screen with two buttons on the front, volume buttons on the side, and a power button on top.
“What does this do and how will it help us find Lucy?” said Riley.
“The biggest problem about Silverbirch is everything is monitored, right? What if there was a way to disrupt all the signals at once?”
People in their houses would watch her as she walked by. Some would hold their children closer… Others closed their blinds quickly, shutting themselves off to whatever danger they feared she’d bring in. Sometimes, she watched as their lips formed the word Trixie… and the clicking noise of a widening camera lens outside their homes rung in her ear. She would pull her scarf closer—regardless of season—to shield herself from the glare of the camera and the eyes of its director. When her back, taut from stiffening, and heartbeat raced, she watched them sigh with relief. Trixie was watching her. Keeping them safe. Keeping her out.
Goosebumps trickled above the skin of her forearm, her fingertips grazed over the buttons, trying not to push them.
“You’re a fucking genius, Arlo—”
“Calm down. It’s a prototype. But if it works…”
“We could finally move freely—”
“Guys! Focus. How will this help us find Lucy? The video footage was actually somewhat helpful,” said Marlowe, glaring at Riley.
“I might be able to break into the towers system. If the systems are down long enough that is.”
“What about our other problem? Trixie?”
Arlo winced. “That’s… more complicated.”
Riley shook his head.
“They’re never gonna let us be free, man.”
“We just have to take this one step at a time. I need access to the towers and data before we can know what happened to her. I mean, for sure.”
“We’re gonna find her, Marlowe,” said Arlo. “Now, try the disrupter as soon as you get back in service range.”
An owl hooted in the distance, causing them all to jump.
Riley looked out into the darkness. “That’s our cue. Let’s get out of here.”
They left one by one and Marlowe put her mask on and hopped back on her bike. Once back in signal range, her wrist bracelet flickered back on. She fished the black box out of her pocket and turned it on. She pressed the black button. Her wrist bracelet buzzed. Error: Connection Timed Out. GPS Signal Not Found.
Shut down successful.
She unlocked her door and mthr was waiting for her.
“You’re back early.”
Marlowe’s heart thudded against her chest as she pulled down her sleeve lower.
“Is your cellphone working? I’m not getting very good reception.”
Marlowe checked her phone.
“Looks fine to me.”
mthr stared at her.
Marlowe raced up the stairs before mthr asked her any more questions.
She closed the door almost breathless.
I gotta get out of here.
Golden sunlight streamed in through the half closed blinds. Marlowe rolled onto her side. Her phone buzzed.
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Marlowe stared at the message, quickly scribbling the characters that seemed to be in some sort of sequence. H U G O. Who knew where he was? Was the message from him? Her chest was heavy, the pain from swift beating burst through her chest.
Her wrist bracelet’s screen flashed with a blinking light. “Error 700: Missing or Invalid Content.”
Marlowe’s phone buzzed again.
“Check your mail.”
Marlowe crept downstairs as a manila envelope slid through the front door mailbox. They hardly ever got mail, but the envelope was addressed to her. There was no return address but she already knew who it was from. Well, where it was from. She had trouble remembering what happened before the raid. Sometimes, she woke up screaming and saw flashes of a large fleet of metallic ships coursing through black waters. Men with white faces leapt from the main deck and snatched black children from the shores. She watched as they grabbed Hugo, the other piece of her. He kicked and screamed, tears running down his face. Her heart shattered. She didn’t even notice when one of them came up from behind and scooped her up. She opened the envelope and pulled out black and white photos.
She recognized his face.