Remember to Socialize Safely

in #writing4 months ago


The above image was made with stable diffusion using the prompt 'abandoned car wash.'

Turning the envelope over and over again in his hands, Harlen waited nervously for Gretta to arrive. She'd promised to meet him at their spot behind the hardware store as soon as she was done feeding her family's chickens, but was taking longer than usual. Harlen was grateful for the extra time, because it gave him the opportunity to think more about the Qualification he'd been given that day.

Every student received their official Qualification upon graduating. A computer program examined their school records and decided what each one was fit to do in society. There were five categories a student could fall into: average-manual, average-technical, exceptional-intellectual, exceptional-moral, and unfit for work. Harlen's Qualification was unfit for work, which was disappointing because he'd tried his best to be exceptional.

"You're not going to believe it!" said Gretta, coming around the corner. "Harlen. I'm exceptional-moral."

"That's great," said Harlen, experiencing mild vertigo at the implications of that. "I got unfit for work."

"That's surprising," said Gretta, finding a seat on a plastic crate. "But it means you can focus on your art or whatever you want without having to worry about money."

"I guess," said Harlen. "My test scores are good enough for any program in the the country, but no program will accept me with this Qualification. And you'll probably be studying overseas with the rest of the exceptionals. So what happens to you and me?"

"I'm going to study in Mumbai," said Gretta. "But I'll be able to come back for visits a few times a year."

"I'm happy for you, really," said Harlen. "It's just, I don't see that working. Sorry, but I feel like this is the end of us. Like the system is breaking us up and there's nothing I can do about it."

"That's one way to look at it," said Gretta carefully. "Another way would be to celebrate each of our potentials, even if these are going to take us in different directions."

"I don't know if I can take your optimism right now," said Harlen. "You know how everybody looks at the unfit."

"Yes, but you'll really be able to chart your own course, which is something many people only dream of," said Gretta.

"I can't even travel to India or lots of other places with this Qualification," said Harlen. "I wouldn't be able to visit you even if I somehow came up with the money for travel."

"If staying together is too hard for you, we should part ways now," said Gretta. "I promise to stay in touch regardless."

Harlen didn't say anything else. Instead, he got up and stormed off, irrationally afraid to show Gretta the tears beginning to fall down his face.

Harlen spent much of the next year drunk. His parents threw him out and he found a room in public housing. Eventually tiring of the drama of his unfit neighbors, Harlen made his way to an abandoned section of the city and began squatting an apartment above what was once an old fashioned tattoo parlor. Over time, he spent less and less time drinking, and more and more time fixing the place up.

In the process, Harlen had to register his new residence with the government, and to notify his neighbors that the run down building was now his. Because Harlen was unfit for work, he was appointed a social worker to help with the notification process. A man named Brian, who shouted from the building's front entrance when he arrived.

Exiting the structure through a door made from plastic waste that had been bound and melted together, Harlen waved to his social worker. "You know I could do this myself," he said. "You didn't have to come."

"I'm also assessing your wellness," said Brian. "We can start by having a look at your kitchen and restroom."

Having never given a tour, Harlen jumped at the chance to walk someone else through all of the improvements he'd made to the property. He expected to impress Brian and was disappointed. When the tour was done, the social worker made an ambiguous sound. "Your housing situation is acceptable," he said. "Let's proceed to the neighbor notification."

About a third of the buildings nearby were occupied, and about a third of these were registered residences. Within a block, there were two apartment buildings, and Harlen introduced himself to their managers. There were also a few families in urban homesteads, with gardens and animals running around, and Harlen introduced himself to them as well. Finally, there was an old car wash where Harlen had caught several glimpses of a woman who always seemed to be carrying crates.

"Hello, resident!" shouted Brian as they approached.

"Over here!" came a reply from an open garage door.

They found her at a workbench, surrounded by bicycle parts. "I'm Agatha, she said. "People call me Silver."

"Nice," said Harlen, grinning. "I'm Harlen."

"Harlen is officially notifying you of his residency at number 25," said Brian. "He's unfit for work."

"Me too," said Silver, focusing on her neighbor. "I've seen you around. Ever need a bike, you know where to find me."

"What about a bike trailer?" asked Harlen.

"Come by tomorrow and we'll talk," said Silver. "Bring me something good to eat or drink."

"Uh, okay," said Harlen. "I mean, that'd be great."

Brian nodded. "Socializing is healthy," he said. "Remember, both of you, to socialize safely."

Read my novels:

See my NFTs:

  • Small Gods of Time Travel is a 41 piece Tezos NFT collection on Objkt that goes with my book by the same name.
  • History and the Machine is a 20 piece Tezos NFT collection on Objkt based on my series of oil paintings of interesting people from history.
  • Artifacts of Mind Control is a 15 piece Tezos NFT collection on Objkt based on declassified CIA documents from the MKULTRA program.

This is a lovely story, @mada. We meet Harlen at a critical juncture in his life. His situation seems dire. But in the end, there is a hopeful note as the label that has been slapped upon him suddenly seems almost meaningless. Learning to live happily as the person he is seems obtainable, especially when he meets a woman who has been labeled the same way.

Hey thanks! This is just the first chapter. I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.

I'm very curious about this society you're beginning to paint for us! The idea of a Qualification is fascinating and unsettling. I like Harlen already, and I'm curious how he will grow and evolve.

Awesome start to this new sci fi of yours! What inspired you to start writing fiction again?

Right on. It just seemed like time to write another story. Something about the distant future.

I love the dystopian setting, with its ambiance of neglect rejuvenated. It’s clever of you to use the setting to underpin the story that has the same theme. The sense of a loss is transformed to hope. Scintillating dialogue, fabulous characters.

You left me intrigued—I’d love to read more. 💕❤️

Glad you like it! Expect more soon...

You have a great touch with short stories, @mada — providing just enough information to create the scene, tell the story, and engage the reader, but never too much that you bog the story down in details. You also do a very nice job of interweaving action, dialogue and narrative, which is something many writers struggle to master. Nicely done!

Check out our weekly prompts in The Ink Well community sometime!

Hey thanks! I do my best. And thanks for letting me know about your community.