Time for another short story, this one firmly in the realm of dystopian fiction. I tried not to go too young adult dystopian or throw too many world-building words out there all at once so as not to infuriate people. Comes in at 3.4k words, hope you enjoy it!
by Rick Cook Jr
The waitress in white offered me coffee and the first thing I pictured was splashing that coffee all over her pristine white outfit. The blouse, the skirt, the apron, the stockings, the pumps. They made her wear heels. I hadn’t even seen heels since my history lessons, and certainly had never worn them. The flash of her bra-strap when she leaned in to take my order told me all I needed about her underwear, too, and I suppressed the tingle that ran down my spine at the sight.
She was terrified, I could see it in her wide eyes, barely-contained tears. We were all terrified for her.
The rest of the wait-staff wore the usual dark blue, and your run-of-the-mill stains wouldn’t show up. But Willa, the waitress in white, had to be careful about a coffee stain or a drip of syrup on her skirt.
Every speck, splotch, stain, drip, and dribble counted.
I accepted the coffee and didn’t throw it all over her, then ordered toast and eggs and didn’t throw that all over her, either. This was the first time I’d ever seen it in action and I didn’t want to screw it up for her any more than she wanted to screw it up for herself.
But for one guy in the diner, this seemed to hold true. This guy watched the waitress, and I watched the guy. His grey suit lined in bronze thread marked him as a manager or executive of a foundry. Every time she came near his table, his fingers flinched on the fork dripping with egg runs, and greasy yellow yolk speckled the table. I didn’t know if she could see it, but I sure could. He wanted to fuck this up for her.
I texted my boss, “late, white trial in progress” and moments later my phone buzzed with a string of questions he knew I couldn’t answer, all the big W’s. Dangerous thing, skipping work, but I had a little more leniency than most.
Willa came back to my table to freshen my coffee, which I hadn’t touched. The coffeepot trembled in her grip and she bit her lip in concentration.
“Willa?” I asked.
“Y-yes? Can I get you something else? Bacon or sausage, maybe?” Her eyes darted from mine when I tried to make eye contact.
My mouth watered at the thought of bacon. “You actually have pork?”
She nodded. “Cheap, too. Should bring in quite the crowd today.”
I gave her my best commiserating smile. “Anything I can do?”
“Unless you can find me another set of whites, I doubt it.”
We both knew that wouldn’t happen. I shrugged. “Then I’ll have some bacon.”
She nodded, smiled in a way that broke my heart, and swept off to the kitchen. Women in heels… I tore my gaze away from her legs. Some customers got up, swiping their chiphands as they left, while others came in, taking an empty booth. Still the guy sat dribbling and flicking egg yolk. I hadn’t seen him take a bite yet, just stirred and spun and dripped.
When Willa came back out, the new people were being served by another waiter in the standard blue. The group saw Willa’s white outfit and couldn’t excuse themselves fast enough. Maybe they’d already seen a white trial go horribly wrong. The young waiter in blue tore the order off his pad and dropped it in Willa’s hands as he pushed past her. I heard him mumble, “There goes my tips for the day,” as he disappeared back into the kitchen.
Willa sighed and crumpled the paper as she stuffed it in her apron pocket, then started clearing off the other vacated table. Her motions were slow, conservative, methodical. Every plate stacked with care, all the utensils placed without so much as a clink in the bussing tray, the cups poured like a slow pull of ale. Willa carted the tray to the kitchen and came back scrubbing at something on her apron. From here it looked like blood, but was probably hot sauce.
The guy with his runny eggs stared in disappointment at that dark red splotch. First strike wasn’t his. I called Willa over while she was still wiping the apron with a damp cloth.
“So much for a perfect day, huh?” she said, her voice cracking.
“No such thing.”
She smiled and stopped rubbing. It was still faintly red, but now there was a much larger damp patch where she’d tried to clean it out.
“Been here all of thirty minutes and already I screwed up.”
I waved that away. “You can’t screw up if you haven’t failed yet. Just watch the sides of those bussing trays next time, right?”
She nodded and blinked back tears, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Your bacon will be ready in a minute.”
I thanked her and she walked back to the guy’s table to check on him and refill his water. He ordered more eggs and some grape juice this time. His grin must have looked sincere to Willa, but to me it screamed “You’ll be a painting when I’m through with you!” Willa disappeared back into the kitchen and I made a decision.
I stood up with my coffee and eggs, and my briefcase straddled under my arm, walked over to the man, took a seat opposite him before he could protest, and stared him down.
“What the hell, lady.” He examined my outfit but it was designed to give nothing away, to blend as any low-level executive in any of a hundred companies. I could see he wasn’t impressed.
I took a sip of coffee and said, “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“I just thought you might like to have some conversation with your meal.”
His eyes narrowed and I could see sweat on his forehead now. It wasn’t hot out yet; he was nervous, excited.
“Not in the mood to humor a random stranger.” His eyes darted to the kitchen, where we could both see Willa watching us from the order up window with a curious, brow-wrinkling expression.
“Random act of strangeness,” I said. “I have a proposal for you.”
He turned back to me. “I don’t go for classy broads.”
I plucked a napkin from the napkin holder and wiped up the drying, hardening splotches he’d been flicking on the table. He sat back, arms crossed, wide-eyed and frowning. I repressed a smile.
“I’m going to sit here and eat my breakfast, and you’re going to do the same. If you happen to spill something on our dear Willa, I will testify that it was your intention to sabotage her white trial.”
He scoffed. “Your word against mine, bitch.”
I smiled and took a bite of toast. “I suppose they’ll take the word of a foundry-master over a Truthseek?” I asked while chewing. Perhaps not polite, but he didn’t deserve polite.
He paled and gaped. “No way you’re a Tru-“
“Did you two know each other?” Willa asked when she reached the table. She set a pile of bacon in front of me and smiled at my reaction, then set the glass of grape juice down in front of my new friend.
I said, “Oh, not at all. We’re just going to sit here and enjoy each other’s company. Too many people eating alone these days, don’t you think, Robert?”
He snorted and picked his fork back up, careful not to flick the egg yolk around. “Sure do, uh, Marta.”
Willa stared between us and smiled. “Well, at least not everyone is stuck looking at my getup.”
“Did you ever hear the old tradition about white clothing?” I asked the both of them.
“‘Old’? Like not the white trial?” Willa asked. The man I was calling Robert didn’t look up from his eggs.
I munched on a strip of bacon and tried to contain my moan of pleasure. This place was going to be a nightmare when word got out they had pork.
“Old like before the new regime, old like before the world government.”
The place had all but emptied out for the moment, the morning rush still yet to come and only the earliest of birds having already gotten their worms. Willa pulled a chair over and sat down at the edge of the booth, careful to wipe the seat and the edge of the table before sitting.
“I’ve got a minute for storytime.” Her hands weren’t shaking anymore.
I took a drink of coffee and started, “Used to be you could wear pretty much whatever you liked, whenever you liked.”
Robert snorted. “Don’t seem so different. Uniforms on the clock, anything off the clock.”
“Not just off the clock. Professionals like myself and Robert here were afforded the luxury of wearing any number of things to our daily jobs, while service industry wore uniforms dictated by their employer. Each employer had their own style and color. Medical, security, and emergency industries were often different styles and colors depending on region as well.”
“But that’s just chaos,” Willa said, smoothing her skirt. “How did anybody know what anybody did?”
“Off the point and I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t, either. Truthseeks knew the broad strokes of history but not the details. “White wasn’t just a trial cloth. In fact, it was hotly desired and often considered fashionable.”
“‘Fashionable’?” Willa repeated.
I waved that away. “Let’s just stick with desirable. People liked and wanted to wear white, but not all the time.”
Robert snorted again. “Sounds like our ancestors were a buncha moonbrains.”
I nodded, though I disliked the term. “They spent a lot of time worrying about how they dressed, what their makeup looked like, how their hair was styled. It was their version of animal mating displays.”
Willa stared, brows furrowed, while Robert leaned in, eyes wide and excited. Then he caught me watching him and cast his gaze elsewhere, clearing his throat to hide his excitement. Willa said, “People used to do that stuff?”
“As you suggested, lots of chaos back then.” I munched on the last piece of bacon, savoring it, while they took this in.
I swallowed and went on, “Even with all that chaos, they still had rules. Not decrees like we have now, but accepted guidelines for how to dress and act in socially desirable and acceptable ways.” Willa had her elbow on the table supporting her chin, entranced by a fairy tale, and for a moment I was so entranced by her that I had to stop and gather myself.
“And what does all that have to do with wearing white?” Robert asked.
I looked between them, unsure how to continue. Truthseeks knew more than anyone else, and there was no rule against talking about it like I was doing, but some knowledge wasn’t good to spread.
“There’s a saying we learn as Truthseeks before learning the histories that may help you understand this next bit. ‘Men controlled the market, women controlled the rest.'”
“Women in control?” Willa said, sitting up straight now. “How did that even work?”
“No wonder everything was in chaos with women in charge,” Robert said. Willa nodded and I didn’t think it was appropriate to explain the kinds of power women wielded back then or how horrible it became for humanity in the long run.
“So bearing that in mind, one of the rules laid down was that you couldn’t wear white after what they called Labor Day.” They stared blankly at me now. “Labor Day was a single day in September that often marked the end of summer for many people, when teachers went back to work, students went back to class, and everything went back to normal. It was considered desirable to wear white during the hot summer months but not before or after. It was considered this way because women said it was so.”
“So instead of the white trial, they had a season in which it was preferred to wear white,” Willa finished. I nodded and she stared around at the empty cafe. “Hard to think of it as more than a burden.” She stood up and smoothed her skirt again, looking for the smallest stain that might have crept upon her while she sat. “Maybe the day won’t be so bad after all.” She gave Robert and me a thin smile and walked back into the kitchen.
“Hell of a story,” Robert said, picking his fork up and actually eating now. “Any of it true or you just keeping her calm?”
I sneered and hid it behind my coffee cup. “Can’t it be both?”
“Pretty far-fetched. Women in charge, arbitrary style rules, people wearing whatever they want.”
“Our history is far stranger than what I’ve given you today.”
“I just don’t see how anybody got along with all that uncertainty and chaos.”
I had thought about it, too, when I first read the histories. “It must have seemed terribly organized to them at the time. We can view it through a lens of time and our superior systems and scoff at their disorder, but perhaps they were doing the same thing to their ancestors, whom were fighting with sharp objects and sacrificing virgins to fictional gods.”
Robert’s eyes widened. “How do you learn all that and keep yourself sane? Reading about chaos and disorder… doesn’t it make you go a little crazy?”
I shook my head and hid my grimace behind a bite of eggs. “It’s not for everyone. The histories are meant to inform us of behaviors people used to display without Upper Education, so that they can be identified and dealt with when Up-Ed slips.”
Robert paled and pushed his eggs away. “I think I should be getting to work.”
“What made you want to ruin Willa’s white trial?” I asked.
He stammered and looked about the room, then back into my eyes before settling on the table between us again. “I don’t know. Sometimes I look at other people struggling and feel better about myself because I’m not doing as bad as they are.”
“But a white trial? There’s no more important moment in a young girl’s life.”
He rubbed his hands together on the table, said nothing.
I sighed. “You should get to work, friend. Lateness is an aberration, as they say.” The man I had been calling Robert nodded, got to his feet, waved his chiphand over the payment node and left a sizable credit for me to use as I saw fit. I wondered if that constituted a bribe, but shook my head as he departed. He cast one glance over his shoulder at me and shouldered his way through the crowds outside.
The rest of my food was going to go uneaten. Declaring aberrations had a way of souring my stomach; here it was barely light outside and I already had one. This at least would make up for calling in late.
I keyed my office his chiphand identification from the payment node with the codes SchF, Lu, and Kor, for schadenfreude, lust, and korruption. Then I sighed and pushed my plate away, as well.
Willa came back and refilled my coffee as some new customers finally ventured in despite her white trial. She seated them and came back to me.
“Your name was Marta?” she asked.
“It’s actually Charlotte.”
She nodded and smiled. “Well, thank you, Charlotte. You gave me distraction when I needed it. Not many would have.”
I returned the smile; it wasn’t often I was thanked. “Do you think I could get some bacon to go?”
She laughed. “Get it while you can,” and turned away.
“Willa?” She turned back. I stared at her no-longer-pristine outfit and then back into her eyes. “Have you picked out names?”
She broke eye contact and walked away without answering. Maybe it was too personal for someone on their white trial. I thought to apologize when she came back out, but she brought me a slice of cherry pie and interrupted me when I tried.
“They tell you not to pick out names. That you get attached to the idea and your hopes get all riled up and if it doesn’t work out, a lot of people can’t go on.”
“I understand, I didn’t know.”
Her lips cracked into a shy grin. “I couldn’t help it, though. I have a dozen names picked out.”
“A whole dozen?”
She sighed. “I’m afraid if I only think of just enough the names won’t fit and I’ll feel terrible about it for the rest of their lives.”
I nodded and tried the pie. “I think you’re going to be just fine, Willa.”
She reached out a hand as if to clasp mine and I reflexively pulled away, then regretted it. She brushed her hand on her apron and held her head down, staring at the floor. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep-“
“It’s not you. Truthseeks don’t get much physical contact.” Only true of me. I tried to hide my blush but she didn’t seem to notice. Why would she? She wasn’t trained like I was.
She brightened and smiled again, and I realized how much I liked her smile. Suddenly I didn’t want her to pass her white trial, either, and I pushed the thought away.
“Well, Charlotte, thanks again.” I smiled and inclined my head slightly as she turned away. She turned her head over her shoulder and she said, “Maybe it’s a baker’s dozen now,” with that sad little grin. She disappeared back into the kitchen.
My heart leapt in my chest. Before I even knew what I was doing I’d queued up her location for an aberrant declaration. I stopped before calling it in. And stared. My finger was poised to execute and ruin this young woman’s life.
Not only would aberrant behavior ruin her white trial and her chance at group fostership, the cornerstone of society, but Re-Education was violent and invasive. In training to become a Senior Truthseek, we were shown the lengths to which our government would go to reclaim a mind.
It was necessary, of course, for the survival of the human race, but that didn’t make it easy to watch; less so to imagine it on a friend or colleague, or in my case, a potential lover.
But if she became a Mother there would be no potential anything between us. She’d never see anybody but her children and the nurses and caregivers responsible for nuclear care.
It was as if I approached a crossroads with no safe route forward.
I could ruin Willa’s life by turning her in for aberrant behavior (surely she had been flirting with me?).
I could leave her be to pass or fail her white trial and hope she failed so I could be with her.
I could help her pass her white trial, much as the man I called Robert had sought to sabotage it, thereby granting her desires at the cost of my own.
I could let the whole thing go and turn myself in for aberrant behavior. It’s what I was trained to do.
And now I felt guilty about Robert. I checked my phone and received confirmation that he’d been picked up en route to the foundry. The next time anyone saw him he’d be a shell, waiting to be filled with morals and desires more in keeping with what society desired. While I ran free.
“Free”. They had scrubbed that word from the languages of man, replacing it with “order” long before I’d become a Truthseek.
Well, I was beginning to think I wanted to exercise a little freedom, but a thing like this required thought, and planning. I was coming back for her.
She woke with me holding her tight the next morning, skin to skin. I had taken advantage of her pain, her sorrow at failing her white trial, to fill a void she only discovered last night. Her cheeks were puffy and tear-stained, her eyes swollen and red. She smiled at me, that sad little grin, and nestled in closer. Those lips were going to be the death of me. She’d have time to panic at her actions later, but for now she was satisfied, protected, and loved. Who could protect me?
“What happens next?” she asked.
I stroked her hair, wishing I could tell her the truth, knowing if I ever did it would be the end for both of us. I’d stolen her dream of being a mother; I’d broken my covenant as a Truthseek. We were agents of chaos, agents of freedom. The thought tingled down my spine and settled in my groin, not unlike the arousal I had finally succumbed to.
She looked into my eyes as I stroked her hair. “Charlotte?”
I kissed her forehead, then her lips, and thrilled at her hot breath on my neck.
“We start hiding.”