The bed covers curled away from Vaughn’s fingertips as he awoke to the sounds of Bach. Yesterday it was Beethoven. The day before, it was Mozart. Today, though, he knew that the symphonies crashing through his window could only mean one thing. Today was the Day of Celebration.
Vaughn stretched himself away from the warmth of his bed as Fugue in D minor climbed to its climax. Most likely, the Nation had agonized months over the array of instrumentals. In fact, they probably even hired real musicians to play through the song, although he knew they would be hard pressed to find any. After hearing nothing but music all day, few wanted to even strum on an elastic band anymore, Vaughn included.
Callous hands that had once cradled a guitar now rested lazily on the bed as he slipped his nightgown off. A body hardened by mediocre work for mediocre pay greeted him. Two large, pink scars mapped themselves across the nakedness of his chest while a tattoo of a music note spread itself on his broad back. For the most part, he considered himself average looking. It couldn’t be helped. All people living within the Nation looked more or less the same. Hair was usually cut short to hide sexual distinctions, eyes were usually an empty jet black, and despite the noticeable differences in skin colour, race was a factor forgotten long ago.
Vaughn, though, was slightly different from the lot. Unlike the rest of the population in the Nation, he had green eyes along with long, blonde hair that hung off the edges of his shoulders. He also donned a pale beard that prickled his neck as slowly moved about. Even this morning, he nearly tickled himself into a laughing fit as his eyes readjusted to the morning sunlight. He was tired and despite his body’s utmost wishes to stay in bed, he knew he had to begin the day searching for his black jumpsuit.
It had been a year since he wore it, and it probably didn’t fit anymore. He would be surprised if it was even in one piece after last years Celebration. For the most part, he couldn’t remember what had happened to it, although a distant and hazy memory of running, sleeves being torn, and a chilling scream did come to mind. Other than that, he could not remember much and assumed that laughing gas was to blame. Sometime after last years Celebration, the Nation had opiated him with just enough laughing gas to erase his memories. It was a simple and effective tactic. After enough laughter, even the worst of memories can be forgotten.
Vaughn knew that the gas wasn’t originally meant to cause memory lost. He read in a book once that when first discovered, the gas served as a hynpagogic for patients undergoing surgery. But after the Revolution in 2132, it became a way to guarantee universal peace. The revolutionaries used it as the edifice upon which their rebellion was built. According to their motto, “music and laughter is all there is to make this world worthwhile.”
In its very beginning, the message was accepted by many, resulting in a mass following. People flocked far and wide to join the cause. Religious, racial, and geographical differences were inconsequential. Under the motto of music and laughter, there was only one title that mattered: the Nation, or as the revolutionaries called it, “everything and anything.”
There were some who fought against the Nation, however. They wanted the sanctity of laughter to be reserved for the most sacred of times. Same with the beauty of music. They argued that if the two were played continuously then their majesty would fade and they would become indistinguishable from the wind. Music and laughter would just become a part of everyday.
But the battles were few and far between. The enemies of the Nation could not fight against the sound of a child’s laughter nor could they organize themselves over the ballads of Ave Maria. In the end, music and laughter became the staples of the world, and the world became the Nation.
Any semblance of the past was abandoned. Religions crumbled. Culture faded. No longer were differences recognizable. For a while, it was called an utopia. This was the Nation’s simple recipe for peace: do way with the differences and one will find equality. That’s exactly what they did. Everyone could enjoy music. Everyone could laugh. And so, everyone was equal.
This was all hundreds of years ago. Somewhere along the lines, the Nation changed. Music still played daily. Laughing gas was still dispensed freely. But hierarchy was needed. To have equality, there must be a force to govern and define what is equal. So the Nation’s governments were born. With that came the city sections, the distinctions in work classes, and the need for a caste system. In the poorest sections, laughing gas was kept at a dangerously low level to keep addiction levels high. In the affluent regions, Vaughn heard that laughing gas had substituted air.
Even today the differences would be apparent. Although the Celebration was meant to serve as a reminder of the successes of humanity, Vaughn saw it as nothing more than a bitter testament to inequality within the Nation. On the upper levels of the Celebration stage would be the Nation’s officials. The middle stage would comprise mostly of soldiers from the military, and at the very bottom, trotting on dirt and mud, were the civilians. It was they – the civilians of the Nation – who were meant to participate in the Celebration, so it was they who placed their names into the Celebration Jar. Each year, every civilian placed their name into the jar, and each year, one civilian was selected to be the sacrifice. The Nation said that there was no higher honour.
For the civilians, the ‘celebration’ essence was not being selected. For the Nation, the ‘celebration’ was that of progress. “Humanity has progressed so far due to bloodshed,” chanted the Nation’s officials at each Celebration, “Let us not forget the debt that was paid to us.” As far as they were concerned, laughter and music could not be had without a reminder of humanity’s unalterable mortality contrasted with beauty’s everlasting nature. As they said in their annual speech, “To have immortality, there must be mortals. We are those mortals. We must give ourselves to forever.”
The civilians saw it differently. Each year as the blood poured down the podium and the Nation’s officials clapped excitedly, the civilians were reminded of the sole fact that blood is all human beings really are. With each scream, they recognize that in order to create the Nation blood had to be spilled. And with each passing year, they understand that this blood is not spilt by the leaders but by those who are led. That is true equality: when the blood of ten is equal to the blood of one.
And for the Nation, that is something to celebrate about.
He knew he had to hurry. Attendance was mandatory. Two years ago, some woman in his building complained that she was too sick to attend, arguing along the vein that her convalescence was necessary for the health of the Nation. She was a worker in the sawmill. A pretty girl. Young too. Vaughn always wanted to get the nerve to speak to her, though he never did see her again. The Nation’s patrol just issued a letter on her door, 504321 was so sick that she died. Vaughn wanted to ask questions, but he knew better. The only thing worse than questions were answers, and he didn’t bother with both. He did, however, wonder what her real name had been. 504321 felt more like an expiry date than anything else.
He had been given a number too. 563294. It was tattooed across the backside of his wrist, representing that he was the 563294th birth in the Nation. All children of the Nation are marked with such numbers. Even before their umbilical cords are cut, they are sanitized from head to toe in ethanol, stained with black ink, and organized by weights and identification numbers on a large computer. Some babies don’t survive the process, and the Nation often issues apologies to the ink factories for wasting raw materials on a baby who wouldn’t have made it otherwise. The mother, on the other hand, is usually fined or their laughing gas ration is cut.
Luckily, Vaughn was born a healthy baby with few complications. Unfortunately, his mother died during birth and his father passed away in an explosion in the sawmill when he was twelve. His body was never found. Now, Vaughn was 32. He didn’t have kids of his own. To some in his city section, he was an elder.
Of course he didn’t feel like one, although his gruff appearance seemed to suggest as much. To make matters worse, his memory was certainly failing this morning. After searching the entirety of his dingy apartment, he couldn’t find his jumpsuit. Perhaps it was so torn that he threw it out last year thinking that it was nothing more than a rag. Regardless, he needed to find whatever remained of it. The jumpsuit was a representation of his city section. All the people in his building would be wearing the same outfit. It was tradition.
Criminal fines were often given to those without jumpsuits. He had even heard that some repeat offenders were chosen as sacrifices months in advance. Vaughn expected that even one slip up might not be forgiven this year because of whatever happened last year. Most likely, the Nation would increase its military presence and have entire battalions of soldiers carrying grenades filled with laughing gas just in case. Whatever Vaughn had been running from, or whatever he had been running too, the Nation would ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.
Vaughn figured his best chance would be to see if someone else in his building had an extra jumpsuit. Lacking the time and the money, he’d have to borrow one. Of course this was just as offensive as a crime as not having one, but perhaps no one would notice. As vigilant as the Nation’s patrol was, they were only human.
The thought comforted Vaughn. Despite the Nation’s unquestionable power, they were just like him. Maybe, then, they too had limitations and maybe they could even fall just like him. But those were dangerous thoughts and he had neither the time to fancy them nor the power to act on them. So instead, he muffled thoughts of insurrection, quickly put on his sawmill attire, took a small hit of laughing gas for courage, and stepped out the door of his apartment.
Except for a few rats scurrying across the broken floorboards, the apartment was a ghost town. The grey walls echoed the rhythmic sounds of his footsteps and the ceaseless music outside. Fading wallpaper of better times peeled away slowly, a tantalizing reminder of what once was. Numerous people had scribbled incendiary retorts on the wall’s bare spots. In black ink, one stood above them all. Whenever Vaughn passed it, he couldn’t help but smiling. “Music was meant to inspire laughter. Laughter was meant to create music. Both at the same time cause nothing but noise.”
Passing by the little pieces of rebellion, Vaughn began to knock on the doors of his neighbours. He never met them nor knew their name. The Nation didn’t allow for social community. As it was commonly said, “You can laugh with them. You can listen to music with them. But you can’t know their name.” The Nation said that it was a way to ensure that music and laughter took precedent over anything else; however, Vaughn saw it as a way to quell any chance of rebellion. Separate people as much as possible by making them look the same and by creating laws against unity, and you’ll stop any possible means to find differences.
It was Vaughn’s dad who told him something along those lines long ago. He said that equality is not found in similarities but in differences, and the acceptance of those deviations. Vaughn’s dad said that this was the most important thing any one could learn.
All of this passed through Vaughn’s head as he continued to search for his jumpsuit. As expected, none of his knocks were answered. Vaughn had to quicken his pace. It was rapidly approaching the time of Celebration. So he began knocking on every door on his floor but still no one answered. On what the Nation considered to be the day that everyone was brought together, Vaughn found himself alone.
Running out of options, he decided to try the next floor. Someone had to still be here. There were always those who dollied around hoping that by showing up later than others, they could suspend the possibility of death.
It was a bit paradoxical. Death was a constant threat in the Nation. People starved. Treason was a common crime. Only during the Celebration, though, did this realization of death take hold. Once the Celebratory was selected, those who were starving forgot about their growling stomachs, those who mumbled reprisals at the Nation were silent, and a whole civilian population watched as one of their own had a fate worse than death: sacrifice to a cause they had forgotten.
As Vaughn climbed the stairs to the third floor, he suddenly heard voices arguing back and forth. “Maybe he went over there,” said the first voice hastily. “Maybe.” The other one replied. They had a cold, hard accent about them. Almost robotic. They had to be Nation’s patrol. Their nuanced dialect was distinguishable even to the deaf. When they spoke, it was as if each word was calculated and planned in advance, almost as though the conversation was occurring in a theatre. After a short pause, the voices were drowned out in a flurry of quickened footsteps.
Were they looking for Vaughn? They couldn’t be – he wasn’t late yet. They had to be searching for someone else. Maybe there was a fugitive in the building. It seemed unlikely. As far as Vaughn could remember, there hadn’t been any significant rebellion within the Nation. Everything was too controlled and too severe in order to cause any actual revolution. The Nation had everything. The civilians had nothing. It would always be that way, thought Vaughn.
Even though they probably weren’t looking for him, Vaughn carefully crept up the remaining stairs. Each creak was like a death sentence and seemed to be louder than the next. If he were caught, they would not be merciful on him. The Nation wasn’t one for clemency, even less so for leniency.
Just as he made it up the final step, he heard the hurried footsteps of the two voices again. From the sound of it, they were just about five meters away from Vaughn, and like last time, they were arguing. “You said he want there,” the first said angrily. “And he wasn’t.” “Be that as it may,” the second calmly hummed back, ”but at least I said something.” The first went silent, obviously digesting what the other had said, “And look where that got us.” It sounded like he was smiling, proud of his retort. “Regardless,” replied the second voice, “we have to find him. The fate of the Nation depends on it.”
Whoever it was, Vaughn realized that the person was either highly dangerous or highly beneficial. As far as Vaughn was concerned, it could have even been a Celebratory that had been chosen in advance and had run away. It wasn’t unheard of in the Nation. People ran away all the time. Most of the time they were caught. The Nation was worldwide. There was nowhere to hide.
Right now, Vaughn felt no different. He figured that he should run or he’d have to face the consequences of not wearing his traditional jumpsuit. As the voices continued to bicker back and forth, he slowly crept to a door. Realizing that a knock would give his position away, he decided to turn the knob and bear the ramifications later. Unfortunately, it was locked. He tried a second door. It was locked as well. Third. Locked.
He was quickly running out of options. To make matters worse, the voices had ended their conversation. The apartment was dead silent. Any move Vaughn made now, and he’d surely be discovered. Yet if he stood idle, the same would be true. So slowly he shuffled his feet towards the next door. Still there was silence in the apartment. For some reason, even the music that previously had been playing outside had been turned off. It was disconcerting. Vaughn was not used to such silence. In fact, it made him dizzy. He was losing his concentration, and his feet were beginning to stumble. Suddenly, his foot caught against his other and there was a loud creak, then a breathless pause, the return of silence, and an long-winded exhale.
It seemed that Vaughn’s stumble hadn’t given away his position. He was safe. He still had a chance.
“Hello Vaughn,” a voice said behind him.
The voice smelt of laughing gas.
Vaughn awoke in a dark room. His hands and legs were bound. He was still dressed in his oversized sawmill attire. A bit dizzy, he attempted to get a grasp of his surroundings. In front of him, there was a table with a machine he had never seen before atop of it. Behind him, a large mirror spread itself the width of the room. The door was on his left, and a small creak at the bottom of it produced the only light in the room.
He wanted to yell, but he knew that it would be no help. Whoever had trapped him here was probably watching him now. Anything he did could and probably would be used against him in some way, some form.
Suddenly, the lights turned on and four people in bright white gowns and glasses who had previously been hidden by the dark were on Vaughn’s right. They were all dressed exactly alike. They even looked identical. Their hair was shaven, faces were pale to seemingly transparent. None of them expressed a hint of emotion. Instead, they simply stared at Vaughn and he, helpless to do anything else, stared back.
This continued for a while. Vaughn didn’t know the time but he guess that three hours had passed. No one had moved. Although Vaughn wasn’t in the most comfortable position, he was happy that unlike the four people in white, he was sitting. In a odd sense of pity, Vaughn felt bad for them. They had to be tired from all that standing. “You know,” Vaughn tried to sound as cheery as possible, “you can probably sit on the table if you want. Sorry I took the only chair in the room, it seems.”
The four continued staring at him. They neither laughed nor winced. Nothing changed at all. “Tough crowd,” Vaughn joked again. Still there was no response. Exhausted, Vaughn let out a sigh. “Fine. Fine. You four win.” He mumbled to no one in particular. “If you want to keep staring, go ahead. Me? I’m going to get some shuteye. You know what that is, don’t you?” A smile stretched across Vaughn’s face at his last attempt at a joke.
Yet, the four remained indifferent to it all, and Vaughn wiggled himself to sleep.
Flowers stretched farther than Vaughn could see. Orange, blue, yellow and green mapped itself in all directions. Tulips blossomed beside maple trees; birches mingled with raspberry bushes. Birds hummed somewhere in the distance.
Vaughn knew he was dreaming as he ruffled his fingers in a nearby daisy. Birds hadn’t been around for years. The Nation exterminated them because they thought that music should be only made by man, not by beasts.
And although Vaughn had never seen a bird up close, they now filled his dreams along with flowers that he had read in books. It was so joyous. Vaughn couldn’t remember a more serene dream. Even the birds seemed happy, beasts as they may have been.
Screaming. Vaughn awoke to screaming. The four white ghost-like individuals were still in the same spot, but something had caused them to scream. Vaughn couldn’t put his hands to his ears to block the shrill noise. He tried to yell overtop of them, “What is it? What is it?” but his attempts were vain at best. Although he himself was muffled out because of the sea of screams, he thought he could hear Bach playing in the background.
After what seemed like forever, the cries stopped. Everything was hazed. Although Vaughn didn’t quite know it, his ears were bleeding and he had actually gone deaf in his right ear. Again, he tried to lift his hands to cover his ears, but the bound rope only cut deeper wells into his wrists.
Just as soon and abrupt as the lights went on, they went off. Darkness once again enveloped the room. Because of Vaughn’s impending deafness, everything was silent. This was the second time he had heard silence in his life, if silence can said to be heard that is. The first time, he was scared and disoriented. The second time, he was sure that he had never been happier.
It was weird. He used to be afraid of darkness too. For a man of 32 years of age, he often found himself at the bunt of a joke. “What do you do at night time?” People used to chant. “Oh! I know! Call it light time.” Vaughn just chuckled along with them because in fact, he called it bright time.
Here, though, as the blood crusted along the side of his face and darkness swallowed everything whole, he felt comforted by the old enemy. Because of it, he didn’t have to see the vapid faces of the four seemingly white statues. It made him feel hidden, although he couldn’t move. He became part of everything in the room. From the table to the chair, everything was the same because everything was darkness.
The light turned on. Vaughn expected to hear screaming again, but there was only the comforting silence around him. He turned his head to the right but the four people dressed in white had left. Maybe they didn’t like the dark, he thought.
While he was attempting to figure where they had gone, the door to the room opened. A man with grey hair, a protruding jaw, and a smile etched into his face walked in. The door closed gently behind him. He didn’t look significantly different from the other four. Dressed in a similar simple white gown, the only noticeable different was the emotion on his face and the hair on his head. In a way, he looked oddly familiar. Where Vaughn had seen him though, he wasn’t quite sure.
“Hello Vaughn,” he said.
It was the voice. The voice from the apartment.
“Yes. You recognize my voice, don’t you?”
Vaughn suddenly felt sick. His head began to hurt. But he kept his eyes glued to the man. Even though it wouldn’t help, his fists were clenched.
“Good. Good. How about an introduction then?”
Vaughn remained silent.
“Vaughn, my boy. Didn’t your mother tell you speak when spoken to?”
“My mother is dead.”
The man smiled. From where Vaughn was sitting, it looked almost as if the man was blushing.
“And I wasn’t speaking to you anyways,” Vaughn said bitterly, “The saying works both ways, you know.”
Vaughn knew he was in no position to give attitude but for some reason or another, the man bit his lip. Vaughn thought he saw blood trickling down the man’s skin. “Excellent. Still got that fight in you, I see?”
Fight? What was this man talking about? Vaughn hadn’t been in a fight in years. The last time Vaughn had been in a fight was after his father’s death. A kid had made fun of the fact that his father worked in the sawmill.
“You know who I am, don’t you Vaughn?”
Vaughn couldn’t place where he knew the man from. Did he work at the saw mill? Was he Vaughn’s neighbour? Vaughn wrenched his mind, tossing memory after memory, to figure it out.
The man laughed. “Vaughn,” he chuckled. “Vaughn. Remember when you were twelve?”
Vaughn was shocked. He remained silent, however.
“What about when you were eight and I showed you the guitar?”
It couldn’t be.
“What about the pictures of your mother – Jennaine?”
Vaughn began to cry.
He couldn’t help himself because the man in front of him now, the man who was dressed in a simple white gown, with grey in his hair, and covered in flesh – healthy, healthy flesh – was supposed to be a dead man.
The man was Vaughn’s father.
End of Part 1