“There used to be some others who lived in the House, and Peter would bring them to my room to play. These playmates were there when the visitors were too, but I didn’t notice that very often. And these playmates, a bit older than me, left the House during my last birthday. They were old and were cut and sent out or sent somewhere else in the House. I worry though that some of them might have gotten eaten by the cyclones. I worry that when I have to leave the House, the cyclones will see me and come for me.”
Night came on the city with a detestable silence broken only by the inquisitions of Piper’s newly acquired friend, who would not rest until she knew what the Wilderness was. The winter cold blew her every question blocks away as she trailed Piper, and for what her response was, it was much the same as if the words had truly traveled beyond the confines of the city. Somewhere out there, she imagined, the words were striking Gregor’s open ears, who was only now realizing the mess he had made for himself. Truth be told, she thought the man was likely already dead from exposure or predators or the rare few who could survive in the Wilderness, often enough off those just setting out to end it all in the wild.
But Gregor was a cowardly sort; Piper knew that. His only boldness lay in fetish and desire. It was not out of the question to say that he had taken what money he could and left for the Love Market. There he could follow so many paths to half-completion before his funds would run out, but the choice wasn’t easy or obvious. New techniques and supplies meant he could cut up into looking like a low-grade male for the Market or half-assembled conversion. That was just on the border of his strength to commit to such a modification. Then there were all the options one might choose to spend their only funds on; a few weeks with a low cast of the Market, a night or so with the highest-end model he could find. He could have men or women or those in-between or beyond, old or young, the most experienced or those kept chaise for the highest bidder, their ages better not considered. And the experiences he could pay for, Piper hardly would care to imagine. Pure sex, sodomy, bondage, humiliation, defecation, molestation, amputation, mutilation, and all those things that come closer and closer to horror than pleasure for the uninitiated and uninvited. Piper felt a welling of tears, but not for all the horrendous acts Gregor could be committing.
She fought back the warm stream, wishing he could have given those moments to her, even if it meant handling his corpse once he spent himself through starvation or some other deprivation. He might have even desired to go out by her hand, tying a knot too tight or cutting too deep with a brutal toy. Then, in those final moments, maybe he could have seen the bliss in truth, to be without one of the sets and enjoy her as she enjoyed him, a genuine article, imperfect and ugly. But that wasn’t his way, and though she hoped to see the boy waiting when they reached home, she found a government-marked letter instead. With it, she concluded the simple facts, Gregor wasn’t going to the Wilderness. He was going to pay the most beautiful model he could, an older woman, no doubt, to give him pleasure and, inevitably, death.
As they entered Piper’s desolate home, she opened the letter, not wanting it to be another in the abhorrent stack beside the kitchen sink. Those many messages demanded money either through legitimate means or dubious requests, and, of course, those few that were acquainted with her requesting loans. The government wasn’t likely to ask for money, not from someone so low and not outside of taxes. It might be, Piper thought, an economic relief payment, something to help those yet to drown entirely in debt but were far from those who had food on the table every day. Instead, as she split the side of the letter, ignoring Fatimah’s incessant request to be acknowledged, she read those damning words, ‘Notice of Draft Selection.’
The name was correct, social security number, birth date, and every bit of information that might have lent itself to discrediting the notice were true to the letter, as was the watermark in the corner. Piper slumped against the counter, sliding down to lay her head beneath the cupboard wherein the single bottle of all-purpose cleaner lived and went unused; without a mess, there was no cleaning. The thought of drinking the neon green bottle until empty with the hope any and all of the active chemical compounds inside would prove lethal to a human. She had a friend whose baby passed that way. Accident was the claim. The fact was, she had switched out the formula to spare her child growing up in the Market. But Piper knew, just like Gregor, she was a coward.
“Is it not better that he went away to live free in the wild than die captive in this box?” Fatimah asked from the kitchen table.
Piper stared through her hair, watching the woman watch her, “He’s dead. If he went to the Wilderness, Gregor would be dead. But he didn’t go out of the city, he went and nestled deep in the city’s heart. He’s going to the Market, and if he doesn’t die from whatever he goes through, doesn’t starve or contract something, he’ll still find a way to end himself. If he ends up back at his home, it doesn’t matter to me.”
“He was your friend or something. You say he doesn’t matter to you?”
“He…” Piper sat before reconsidering and tucking her knees to her chest, resting her chin on one, “You want to know about the Wilderness? Why, if he did go, he’s dead? And why so many people choose to leave, even aware they won’t live another week?”
Fatimah silently nodded, intrigued if not entranced by the sudden shift. Piper pushed herself up and sat at the table, “The Wilderness is what’s left of it all. All the highways and intersections that used to tie this country together have vanished, just like the cars that used them. The trains are the only way to and from distant cities, great factory towns, and agricultural plants that make our food. And in time, as those industries grew, the need for those roads was forgotten. The myriad cities and small towns that needed them were swallowed up one by one by larger centers of commerce until it was just the few knitted together by the trains. The farmsteads, soured by famine, fell away, the last burning sigils of towns were reduced to the smolders ashes, the last residents too old to move on or too stubborn to keep time with modernity. And they let civilization eek away from them and watched the forests, jungles, and plains grow vast, dense, and green until the snow came. But then they could watch those things in the tundra cavort and carry on wild. All across this nation, along every path, formerly a road or highway, there are bands of these wild people out there, surviving savagely off what they can pick and what they can kill. We were taught young that these people would eat unsanitary things, unhealthy pieces of this and that preserved in primitive ways. That they might even eat a person if they got the chance. But even without the maniacs of the bygone world, there are predators, wild things, bears and puma, and all sorts of insects and reptiles with their venoms. There are a million and one rapists, killers, and cutpurses waiting in the Wilderness, and not a one of them calls themselves Robin Hood. That’s what we were taught as kids.”
“How do you know?” Fatimah broke the silence that came just after Piper finished.
She had set her head down between her outstretched arms, but the inquiry raised her slightly, “What?”
“How do you know about all these dangers? People must return if they went and saw all these things, or no one has gone to see these things and only guess at the truth. If there were wild men and wild creatures that attacked people, they could have come here anytime and done what they will. I want to see it. I want to see it all, to know it’s true.”
“Fatimah, I…” Piper broke off and looked at the letter on the floor. She was to take the train west in only a few days. The bills were falling behind, and soon utilities would be shut off and her lease terminated. There wasn’t enough food or clean water in the place and nowhere to find work and bring in money. No one would take her in, nor Fatimah, unless she went to the Love Market. The choice wasn’t there, she would either be drafted or die slowly cut off from any means of making money, and Fatimah would be right along with her unless she sold herself. The answer seemed obvious, “I will show you how to get there, but I don’t think you should go.”
“Would you rather I stay here with you? We are together, not good company, and I’m afraid you don’t have money enough for yourself as it is.”
“There’s the Market. You would make more than enough to survive on, and they’d even set you up in a nice place. You’d make enough money just making appearances, maybe showing your feet or videos of you on the toilet. What you would make in a day of light labor in the Market would be twice what I’ve net all my life. I can show you the way to the Wilderness or the Love Market, but if you want to live, the choice is obvious,” Piper half pleaded, hoping she might help at least Fatimah.
Folding her hands, Fatimah leaned across the table to create some sense of intimacy, “The choice, in my hands, is not so easily made. I must take my chances in the Wilderness.”
The night grew still, and dead silent as the conversation came to a close. Fatimah excused herself and, perhaps as a show of deference, curled herself into a warm corner of the room. Piper at once wanted to stand and shout, to demand she take the bed if she was so willing to give herself over to the wild country. Instead, she let the day’s news wash over her with a downspout of depression that could strip away any sense of well-being. With feet of unset concrete, she trudged to the bedroom and sealed herself in.
Struggling off her clothes like one come down with a fervent flu, Piper tossed herself on the bed. For once, she didn’t care to notice the stains and rips, springs stabbing through the mattress. Not even a moment did her mind bother concern for the hodgepodge of blankets wadded up into half pillows and a shredded cocoon Fatimah must have found uncomfortable. They were all she wanted then. The only thing she could hold that wasn’t viewing a recorded scene in augmented reality. Piper was confident Fatimah had ignored them and slept in her clothes without a single one of them to cover herself or hold.
Fury welled in Piper’s chest, the very thought that Fatimah could have everything, anything she wanted but desired death over comfort. She could catch the eye of every man, woman, or otherwise who used the Market, but she wanted the Wilderness. They would idolize her, worship her, hold her tenderly, and care for her like a wayward child. Her name would be spread far and wide until her star finally faded, and still, then someone would take her in and tend to her every whim until her final day. However, her beauty would go unappreciated, her comforts ignored, and her life surrendered to the first taker. The thought was oppressive and all-consuming, so much so that the last bits of wakefulness were suffocated under an avalanche of doubt and self-recriminations.