In which Niall has a nightmare, wakes up, and has a nightmare and breakfast.
So warm and soft. “How can women be so good to touch?” Niall wondered stroking her side then bringing his hand up to her rounded breast.
“No, Niall. Not now. I’m sure she’s listening.”
“Come on Kathy, Bree’s fast asleep.”
“Not Brianna, our nosy neighbor.”
“She won’t hear us.”
“But I just know she’s listening for us. Please Niall. Besides we have to get up. It’s a school day for Brianna.”
Niall’s erection hated taking no for an answer but Katherine was already out of the bed. Niall was awakening Brianna “Get up, get up, you have to go to school.”
“I don’t want to go to school. It’s boring there and teacher doesn’t like me. She won’t let me read what I want and she makes me color inside the lines.”
“You have to go to school. Now get up.” Niall went out the door and found himself on the street. It was a poor neighborhood. Everything looked grimy. Even the dead dog looked like it had been there for days since it had been smashed very flat by the passage of many wheels over the hairy shape. Niall had to get to work. It was somewhere around here or was it over there where the white buildings were? He walked toward the buildings, passing a store with some television monitors in the window. Niall had the feeling that they were looking at him, so he started to cross the street in the middle of the block, there being no cars coming. As he stepped off the curb he heard, “Jaywalking. Stop where you are and get back on the curb,” in a loud, authoritative but impersonal voice. He stopped, feeling a little fear and looked around. The TV sets in the window glared at him and the voice from a speaker he hadn’t noticed said, “Get out of the street now!” in that emotionless voice again. Niall stepped up on the curb again. The TV screens were once again a flat, shiny black.
“This is silly,” Niall thought, turned and started across the street once again.
“Stop now. That is not permitted. Return to the curb.”
“All right, come with me.”
“But officer, I didn’t do anything.”
“You were disobeying the computer. Get in the car.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“I’m just giving you your freedom.”
“But I’m already free.”
“You are free to obey the computer but you were not obeying; therefore, you are not free. I will make you obey the computer, then you will be free.”
“Get out of the car, now.”
“Where are we?”
“This is where you will be held. Get in the box.”
“I’m hungry and thirsty. Can you give me something to eat and water to drink?”
“Here hold this pebble in your mouth.”
“I don’t want a pebble. I want food. I want water. I want to take a bath.”
Niall’s body began to itch, especially his scalp. He felt his sores hurting. His feet were bare and filthy. His clothes, rags. Worse he had to go to the bathroom. Where was the can? Had they forgotten to bring it back? Did he have to go in the corner again? “But she’s watching I can’t go in the corner. She’ll see me. Everybody will laugh at me.”
“Stop watching me. Leave me alone! Let me out!”
“May I help you? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
Niall began to awaken. His body was drenched in sweat and trembling. He really did have to go to the bathroom but he was no longer in the box but the somewhat plain guest bedroom at Brianna’s apartment. The TV on the wall was asking, “Is there anything I can do to help you? Are you in pain?”
“No, no. It was just a nightmare. I’m fine.”
The room was lit by the bright lettering on the TV screen showing the time 5:30 A.M. and in smaller letters the indoor and outdoor temperatures. The brightness began to fade, leaving the room in relative darkness but Niall swung both legs over the side of the bed and the room lights came on to a low level so he could easily see his slippers and the furniture. Niall sat on the edge of the bed and waited for his heart to slow somewhat. Then he went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet to relieve himself (with nobody watching, thank God) and did some thinking about what he’d learned the night before.
It was clear that somebody was in total control of everything that was happening. It was a steel hand in a velvet glove and though the velvet was soft, he knew the steel hand was inexorable. Images flashed in his mind, the constant monitoring of everyone’s activities and the absolute control of work through that coordinator business. He still didn’t know what a coordinator was but it sounded ominous. The obviously secret police aspect of checking up on everybody through their friends, everything was clearly set up to totally control a population in a very efficient way. Some genius was obviously at work here. Probably some secret organization was behind it all. It sounded like paranoid ravings to him even as he thought it, but how else could you explain the sweeping changes. Nothing this big and well organized could come about by accident. It had to be by design.
But what could he do about it? Both Tony and Brianna seemed to like their life just fine or at least they were tolerating it. He didn’t quite know what to think about Tony. He just didn’t add up right. Here he was, living mostly on the dole, on handouts, with his wife having to cut corners just to buy paints and yet he seemed happy to go off each day to the library and mess around with the books. But maybe he wasn’t looking at books. Maybe he was doing all his research on the computer. Of course that way the computer knew just where he was and everything he was doing. Tony seemed intelligent enough. Why was he content to have his family living in relative poverty?
Maybe he really wasn’t doing what he told his wife he was doing. Maybe that reluctance to let her read his work was just a cover for almost never writing anything. Maybe he was really working for the state in some secret capacity. But doing what? Undercover work? Maybe he wasn’t at the library at all.
On the other hand his daughter seemed to genuinely love Tony and the kids certainly enjoyed his company.
Damn. There was no certainty about anyone. He couldn’t even communicate with his daughter without that computer overhearing. Sure they said it only told other people what you gave it permission to tell them but he didn’t believe that for a moment. What could he do?
‘First I need more information,’ Niall thought, ‘but what do I need to know? I need to know the goals of this organization that runs things. I need to know whether Brianna’s family is important enough to them that they’ll stop us from leaving the country. I need to know what its weaknesses are. There are so many things I need to know.’
‘No, first I need breakfast,’ he thought as his stomach growled. It was used to Niall’s eating on London time. He finished in the bathroom, returned to the bedroom, consciously not looking at the TV screen, and opened the bedroom window curtains to catch dawn brightening the eastern sky while he got dressed. At least I don’t have to wear those white things he groused. Then he went to the kitchen. The refrigerator had a few staples and a rather small freezer. Certainly there wasn’t enough food there for everyone to have breakfast. He decided to go to the Good-n-Quick.
He opened the apartment door and found a man with a hand truck putting a box down next to the door. From the looks of the hall he was putting similar boxes in front of most of the apartments.
“Good morning, Mr. Campbell,” he said. “Up early I see. I didn’t know what you liked for breakfast so I just put in an assortment of things. If you’ll just mark what you want for tomorrow on the order form I’ll see that you get it.”
“Good morning. Ah, who are you?” Niall managed.
“Oh, sorry, I’m Herbert Watkins, just call me Herb,” the man said holding out his hand. “I work for the Ace Milk Company. Of course we do a lot more than milk these days,” and laughed.
Niall shook hands without thinking and asked “How did you know I was here? How did you know my name?”
“Your daughter told us you were coming, she just didn’t know when. Naturally, when one of the guys saw you at Good-n-Quick last night he told me that you’d arrived. So of course I put some stuff in the box for you.”
“Well, thanks, that’ll save me a trip to Good-n-Quick,” Niall conceded.
“I’ll be back about 10:00 to pick up the empties so please have your order ready by then.”
“Oh yeah, right, no problem,” Niall said and the man went on down the hall.
Niall took the box into the kitchen and unloaded it into the refrigerator and the cabinets. The box was insulated and rather light. On the inside of the hinged lid it had a plastic order form with a variety of items on it that could be marked along with the quantity desired. A small pencil-like instrument was attached next to the form. Niall used it to mark the things he wanted for breakfast the next morning. He’d have to ask Brianna if she were eating in or out tomorrow. There seemed to be plenty of food in the box for the five of them to have lunch or dinner but not both.
By the time he’d put everything away Brianna came in wearing a bathrobe (very plain, so probably “standard”).
“Dad, thanks, but I didn’t want you to have to do all this.”
“It’s OK. Now I know where everything is,” he replied.
“What would you like me to fix you for breakfast?”
“Whatever you’re having. After living with the locals in the Middle East for so long everything looks good.”
Brianna began to move about the small kitchen getting breakfast organized with the occasional small yawn. After a moment Niall asked, “What does it cost you to have the food delivered to the door this way? How can you and your neighbors afford this kind of service?”
“We don’t pay anything for it. It’s all standard food. They want us to use their food, so they make it really convenient. If they didn’t deliver, we’d probably go to one of the fast food places more often instead of the grocery. It’s just a way of competing for our business.”
“But surely it costs a lot more to deliver food to the door every day.”
“Not really. This apartment complex has a lot of people living here so the truck can be fully loaded each time it comes here. Plus the people are living rather close together so Mr. Watkins doesn’t have to go far with each hand truck load. And he’s finished in a couple of hours and he and the truck have time for other work. He doesn’t get paid a lot for what he does but he gets paid rather quickly since we get the benefit of what he does within a couple of hours. Of course in the winter they also give us an emergency box. You know, in case we get a bad storm and they can’t make deliveries for several days? Those boxes get stored in the basement until we need them.”
“But the expense to the company has to be more.”
“No dad, it’s actually less. This way they have far less food to put on the shelves and the inventory is easier to keep track of. There’s far less damage to the food from dropped bottles and such. The store is a lot smaller since far less food passes through it. You don’t have to have people manning the checkout lines for all this food since it bypasses the checkout line. Also, you know exactly how much of each kind of food you need to have on hand and when. It makes everything so predictable.
“If their food starts being of low quality, we just go out to eat more and request less food to be delivered. Pretty quickly they get the idea and improve the quality or forgo a lot of pay. It’s basic business practices, dad.”
Yes, Niall thought and it gives them far more control over you. If there’s unrest in the masses it’s so easy to cut off the food. What a trap. You wouldn’t even need to send in the riot police.
“What are your plans today?” Niall asked.
“Oh, we’re flexible. If you want to sit around and rest up from your trip we can just do our regular routine. If you want to take a tour of the city we can do that, too. It’s been quite a while since I took the kids on an outing. There are lots of things we can do.”
“What about the kids’ school? This is a school day isn’t it?”
“Any day we want is a school day. We home school.” Brianna said proudly.
“Home school. Teach the kids ourselves at home. It’s great. We go at our own pace and the curriculum is individualized. The kids don’t even realize it’s school half the time. They just follow their interests.”
“But you can’t do that to them. They need a real education in a school. Home schooling is for religious nuts and defective kids.” Niall had gone through enough worrying and now this. He was near the end of his rope. It seemed like everything had changed while he had been away. There were no more constants.
“Come on, dad. Did those kids look defective to you? Do you think we’re religious nuts?” Brianna said half laughing.
“But how are they going to learn to get along with their peers if they aren’t in school? How are they going to learn to work with others? It’s unnatural to keep them alone with you all day. They’ll never learn to be independent. They’ll always be whining loners.”
“Dad, how do you think kids were reared on the frontier? How was Lincoln educated? What about Benjamin Franklin? They seemed to do all right.”
“Yeah, well they didn’t have any choice, did they? There’s no way you can do as good a job educating these kids as a real teacher in a real school.”
“Oh, really? Who knows them better than I do? Who loves them more than I do? Who knows how they think better than I do? Answer me that.” Brianna, her motherly pride hurt, was getting a little angry herself.
“Well, what about teacher training. Have you had any education courses?”
“No. Did Socrates have any education courses? I’ve been teaching the children since they were born. John is doing just fine with reading and math and geography and so forth. The proof is in the pudding. What makes you think a school teacher could have done better?”
“They not only are taught how to teach, they have textbooks and resources you just can’t afford. And schools have specialists that know more about their subjects than you ever could. It’s just better in school.”
“We can get any textbook I want, dad. They don’t cost us anything. And if there’s something I don’t know we can always find information about it on the aide, uh, the computer.”
“Yeah, the computer. I don’t want my grandchildren educated by any computer. I want them educated right and that means in a school by real human teachers.”
“You can want all you like but they’re my kids and I’ll make the decisions about their education. You can reconcile yourself to that or not, but that’s how it’s going to be.” Brianna was nose to nose with him, her face flushed, her hands making fists at her sides.
“Mommy, mommy, what are you yelling about? Why are you fighting with Granddad?” little Lora came running in and threw her arms around her mother.
“We were just discussing how to help you become the most wonderful woman in the world, weren’t we, dad.”
Niall’s anger was rapidly ebbing and he smiled down at Lora and said, “Honey, we’re just trying to decide what’s best for you.”
“Mommy’s best for me,” Lora said, went over to the table, and climbed up on a chair. “I want French toast, Mommy.”
Niall and Brianna looked at each other and knew the argument would continue later.
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