The Atina Chronicles Part 4: The Gallery




Atina Part 4 The Gallery
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Holding her arms over her stomach, Kitty Montgomery staggered out of the cabin, trembling. Eyes glued to the dirt ground, she mumbled incoherent words to herself. Unable to move anymore, she fell to her knees and cried hysterically, to the point of hyperventilating.


Penelope, who was talking to Watchman—formerly known as Cleric Abernathy—saw Kitty out of the corner of her eye. She turned and ran to the new recruit. Throwing Kitty’s arm around her shoulder, she lifted Kitty off the ground and walked her to a nearby wooden bench outside the women’s dorm.


“Everything’s okay,” Penelope said, holding Kitty in her arms. “Just Breathe. You’ll be fine.”

Leaning her head against Penelope’s chest, Kitty tried to control her breathing. “I don’t—I don’t understand.”


Hand stroking Kitty’s long, straight black hair, Penelope closed her eyes. “It’s hard to accept, you know, the truth. When I first came out of the cabin, I threw up. My mind couldn’t accept that my entire life had been a lie. I saw a marvelous light in that computer, but it took me a while to realize it wasn’t darkness. Only after months within this community could I finally accept my identity as a human, and not just another one of Atina’s machines.”


“So, everything I saw is real?” Kitty asked, sitting up straight and wiping tears from her eyes with her fingers.


Penelope folded her hands in her lap. “I know it’s hard to believe. It’s like the computer knew me—my questions, my doubts, my feelings.” Staring at her lap, she clenched her pants with fists. “It was more than some artificial intelligence. It connected to me and made me feel, well, important.” Penelope relaxed her hands on her thighs and turned her head toward Kitty. “Does that make sense?”


Kitty, in a burst of enthusiasm, grabbed Penelope’s wrist. “That makes perfect sense. I spent most of my days singing for the Gallery. I had a defined role, but no defined purpose. I wanted to die.”


“Is that why you rebelled against them? You didn’t want to feel that way anymore?”


Sighing sharply, Kitty let go of Penelope and faced forward. “When you stood up against the Collective, I wanted to hate you. Chuké was a close friend of mine, as much as anyone could be, I guess.” She breathed in a large gulp of air and exhaled slowly. “Atina made me think Chuké was the victim of a hate crime and that it somehow involved you. I had no choice but to hate you. That’s the story the Collective forced down my throat.”


Kitty twisted her body and grabbed Penelope’s hands. “I was grieving, and I needed someone to blame. You were an easy target for my anger, but in the days that followed, I realized the person to blame wasn’t you or the one who shot Chuké. I was to blame.” Tears welled in her eyes. “I knew Chuké had a drug problem. I also knew it was getting out of control. The Gallery warned him of the consequences if he continued, but he didn’t listen. He asked me for a small supply to get him through the weekend, but I refused. I didn’t want to get in trouble.”


Sniffling, Kitty looked down. “It was because of me he was in that alleyway. He’s dead because I wouldn’t help him.” Tears streaming down her face, she lamented on that wooden bench.


Penelope gripped her fingers tighter around Kitty’s hands. “I’m not an expert in humanity, but it sounds like Chuké would find a way to self-destruct, regardless. The Gallery took advantage of his weakness and weeded it out before he became a problem for the rest of its artists.”

Kitty pulled away and stood. “I heard rumors of the Gallery’s involvement, but I didn’t know they were true.”


Head cocked to the side, Penelope asked, “Isn’t that why you posted all those things on the social dashboard?”


Arms folded, Kitty rubbed the medium golden skin on her biceps like she was cold. “I was only trying to process what I was going through—my sadness, my anger, and my confusion. I don’t remember saying anything about the Gallery.”


“And you don’t think your emotions are a direct affront to the Gallery?” Penelope asked, pushing herself off of the bench and meeting Kitty at eye level. “You are a well-known artist to all of Atina, the model and singer whose smile melts even the coldest heart. Every man desires to be with you and every woman desires to be you. You were a shining example of Atina’s beauty, a representation of the goddess herself with the highest social score in the entire dashboard.”


Grabbing the side of Kitty’s neck, Penelope’s eyes became focused. “The Gallery could not afford a glitch in their perfect specimen. Sadness. Anger. Confusion. In the lives of regular people, these are symbols of mortality. But in a goddess, it’s weakness.” She dropped her hand, but intensified her stare. “And Atina does not tolerate weakness. Not in Chuké, and definitely not in you.”


Kitty ran her fingers through her hair. “Is that why you rescued me? You thought the Gallery would take me out like you say they did with Chuké?”


“You were there,” Penelope said, waving her arms. “Why do you think they assigned six bots to take you away right before we arrived to get you out?”


“They were my escort. I usually have bots assigned to me as guards, to get from one place to another.”


Penelope squinted her eyes. “Six?”


“I guess it was a little excessive.”


Cupping Kitty’s hands in her own, Penelope clenched her jaw. “You need to realize that the Gallery is not your friend. Atina is not your friend. She does not love you.”


Kitty yanked her hands away and pointed her finger at Penelope. “Maybe you’re the enemy! Maybe Atina is right, and this place is just a community of terrorists.” Kitty spun around and yelled, “You’re all terrorists! You hear me? Terrorists!”


A group of people saw the disruption and walked toward Kitty.


Putting her hand up in a stop sign at the moving group, Penelope slowed down her voice and said, “Listen, Kitty. You saw the computer. You know the truth. There’s no reason to fight it. Atina is the lie, and we have set you free from her chains.”


Shoulders pushed back and chest jutting out, Kitty’s eyes widened. “Atina may be a lie, but how do I know the computer isn’t another lie.”


The group drifted toward Kitty.


Kitty’s eyes darted back and forth between them and Penelope.


Stomping her foot on the ground, Penelope screamed at the group, “Stop!”


They froze, ten feet away, in a position ready to jump on Kitty and constrain her.


“Look at me,” Penelope said to Kitty.


Kitty glared at Penelope like a feral dog, lips pressing together.


“I know this is a lot to take in. You believed something only to find out it was a rouse. You don’t know who to trust, who to follow. I know. I’ve been there.” Penelope inched forward. “Why don’t we go to the cafeteria and get something to eat, so we can talk this over.”


Kitty grabbed a sharp stick off the ground and threatened Penelope with it. “Stay back or I’ll stab you!”


Stopping and taking a deep breath, Penelope said, “We can resolve everything over a good meal.”


Kitty lowered the stick, and Penelope took a step forward. “Come with me and we can talk everything over a hot dinner.”


Hands shaking, Kitty swung the stick at Penelope and grazed her cheek. “I’m not going with anyone!” she screamed.


The group moved in quickly and tackled Kitty to the ground—three men wrestling her and trying to calm her down. The more they handled her, the more furious she grew. Kicking. Screaming. Biting. She wasn’t a goddess or a human. She was only an animal trying to break free.


Penelope walked away and came back with a syringe filled a quarter of the way with a clear liquid. “I’m sorry, Kitty, but we’ll have to talk later.” Kneeling down on the ground, she stuck the needle into Kitty’s neck and rested her thumb against the pump. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she said, “I wish it didn’t have to be like this.” Thumb pressing down, she released the liquid into Kitty’s bloodstream, forcing her into slumber.


***

At eight o’clock the next morning, Kitty’s eyes opened. Still groggy, she strained to lift her eyelids for more than a few seconds before they closed again. She saw the blurry figure of Penelope at the doorway to the women’s dorm, talking to an even blurrier man. She turned her head to observe, eyes opening and shutting, and ears awake enough to overhear the conversation.


“She’s been sleeping a while,” Penelope said, leaning her back against the black-painted door frame.


The man, with arms crossed, replied, “Do you really think it was a good idea to rescue her? It may have done her some good to question things a little while longer before the rescue.”


Resting her hand on the man’s crossed arms, Penelope smiled. “I know you mean well, and in most cases, I would agree with you, but if we didn’t do something soon, they would’ve killed her.”


“Sometimes, people prefer death to accepting they’ve been living a lie. In order for Oblivion to take full effect, citizens have to be ready to cut off their loyalty to Atina. I’m not sure if Kitty was there yet. Given a few months, she could have gotten there, maybe.”


Penelope dropped her hand and shook her head. “She didn’t have a few months. Our intelligence showed we had to move when we did.”


“I hope you know what you’re doing,” the man said, uncrossing his arms.


Penelope stroked the man’s cheek. “It’s not about me and you know that.”


With a slight chuckle, the man leaned down and pecked her on the lips. “You’re right as usual.”


Hugging him tightly, she said, “It’s about time you recognize it.”


The man stepped back and held Penelope’s shoulders, grinning. “I love you.”


“I love you, too, Cicero,” Penelope said, staring amorously into his eyes.


He leaned her head back and kissed her again. This time long and soft, as if no one was in the room. It was gentle and sincere.


Kitty’s grogginess had worn off by this point, biting her lip as she watched the couple consume each other. I’ve seen no one kiss each other like that, she thought. So innocent. So pure. So free. Butterflies filled her stomach as her toes curled under the sheet.


When Cicero pulled back, Penelope stood still with her eyes closed and head arched backward. It took her a minute to regain her composure. “I’ll never tire of kissing you,” she said, face and neck flushed red.


Winking at her, he gave her an air kiss and changed the subject. “You coming to breakfast?”


“No,” she replied, blinking rapidly and holding her neck, “I think I’ll hang back and monitor Kitty. I want to be here when she wakes up.”


“You want me to pick you up anything?”


“Maybe some dry toast and coffee if they have any left.”


Cicero giggled with boyish charm. “It makes me happy you’re drinking coffee now.”


Pushing him out the door, Penelope’s eyebrows furled. “Oh, shut up and get your breakfast, already.”


Bowing, Cicero turned and walked away, whistling.


Penelope stared at his backside for a moment before heading back into the dorm.


Kitty turned her head and quickly closed her eyes before Penelope could notice she was awake.


Breathing in a long breath and exhaling slowly, Penelope walked to a wooden chair next to Kitty’s bed. Sitting gingerly onto the seat, she said, “I know you’re awake. There’s no use in pretending.”


Kitty opened her eyes and turned her head toward Penelope. “How d’you know?”


“I saw the sheets moving out of the corner of my eye and there you were staring at me and my future husband.”


Scratching at her temple, Kitty asked, “What’s a husband?”


Penelope lifted one leg and put it over the other. “Did the computer not tell you about family?”

“I know at one point in history,” Kitty explained, turning over on her side to face Penelope, “there were units called families consisting of wives, husbands, and children. It told me how the families became an obsolete structure toward the end of America.”


Hands tapping her cheek, Penelope asked, “If you didn’t know what a family was, why didn’t you ask the computer for clarity?”


Kitty sat up straight. “What question was I supposed to ask? I didn’t know enough about the basics to have questions on that topic.”


Unfolding her legs, Penelope moved to the edge of her seat. “So, families are interesting. The computer describes them as a construct of the One.”


“Who’s the One?”


“The One is the author of Oblivion, the original coder and brain behind our source of truth.” Penelope threw her arms up in the air and yelled, “How do you not know who the One is? He’s our Father, our rescuer, our salvation. If you don’t know who the One is, maybe you need to go back to the computer and start asking some better questions. The more questions you ask, the more revelation the computer gives you.”


Kitty lowered her head for a moment and then lifted it with new poise and confidence, staring directly into Penelope’s eyes. “I’m sorry I’m not as smart as you. I’m not used to asking questions. People who ask too many questions usually lose points in the social dashboard. The world loved me because I chose not to undermine it with inquiries.”


“I’m sorry for my frustration,” Penelope said, placing her hands on her thighs. “What do you want to know?”


Kitty raised her eyebrows and leaned forward. “What is a husband and how is he allowed to kiss you like that?”


Laughing, Penelope responded, “Now, that’s a smart question.” Rubbing her chin, she looked at the ceiling. “What’s the best way to describe it? Well, you know how Atina outlaws any kind of relationship and violators face the wrath of the Temple?”


“Yes.”


“It’s because they’re afraid. The One invented family to act as an autonomous system within a society. Families have their own culture, their own rules, and their own lives. But they’re only a shadow of what the One experiences in his plane of existence. He designed earthly families to mimic his celestial family. I think celestial is the right word. It means otherworldly.” Scrunching her face, she frowned. “I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this, aren’t I. Here, let me start over.”


Penelope closed her eyes and sighed. “I met Cicero at a time when I wasn’t asking many questions, either. All I knew was work. Cicero was naturally inquisitive and didn’t tolerate the status quo. It attracted me to him, but my fear of Atina kept me from pursuing him. Eventually, he showed me how not to be afraid. When the Hand apprehended me at the HOJ, I thought I was dead, but Cicero rescued me. I had never been rescued before. It felt warm. He led me to this place where I found a deeper purpose and meaning. I fell in love with him quickly and my love for him only grows with time. We’ve become partners, and soon, we will have a public ceremony that gives us new titles. Husband for him and wife for me. These titles give us exclusive rights to each other’s hearts and bodies. Following the ceremony, Cicero and I will no longer live in the men’s or women’s dorms, but we will live in one house, share one bed, and hopefully raise children that will form in my womb.”


Kitty flipped her hands over, palms facing up. In a moment of reflection, she stared at her palms, sweat accumulating in the crevices. Lifting them closer to her face, she examined them like a Pharisee glaring at the moral failure of his people. She felt dirty, unacceptable, her own worst critic.


Placing her right hand on Kitty’s shoulder, Penelope asked, “What’s wrong?”


Slowly, Kitty turned her head and felt shame for the first time in her life. “Love was always explained to me as an obligation, but you treat it as a gift. Men and women who thought they could dispose of me used my body for their own vile purposes.” She shrugged her shoulder to knock off Penelope’s hand. “Dance Kitty. Sing Kitty. Show them what they can have if they offer their undying loyalty. That’s what my superiors would say. And when the cameras were off, they’d lift my skirt, demanding that I give my love to them. As long as I did what they said, my future was secure.”


Placing her hands on her lap and clenching them into fists, she huffed. “I saw the way you kissed that man and the way he touched you. You say that’s love, but that’s not the love I know. My hands taught me the love of the world. My hands have no exclusive right to one man—the Gallery, the Temple, you name it. I loved them all.” She shook her fists in the air. “These hands taught me to survive, so don’t tell me about wives and husbands and families. That’s a fantasy. You said it yourself. All men want me and all women want to be me. I’m Atina, the goddess who’s perched just outside of humanity’s lust. I give them a taste of my song to lure them into slavery, but never enough to leave them satisfied.”


Kitty laid down on her side, facing the wall. Penelope tried to reach out her hand to her shoulder again, but when Kitty felt Penelope’s fingertips, she said in a calm, but stern voice, “You can go now. I don’t need your love. I have all I need.”


Penelope sunk her head and stood, walking to the door. Slamming her palm against the frame, she turned around and said, “I love you not because of what you can do for me or how you can make me feel. I love you because, for better or worse, you’re a part of our family now. When you’re ready, I’ll be waiting for you if you want to talk some more.”


Kitty remained silent as Penelope left the building.


***


Sleeping on and off all day, Kitty remained in bed until her hunger got the better of her. She pulled off her sheet and sat up on the edge of the bed, plunking her feet down on the cool maple flooring. Standing, she looked for a change of clothes, but found none. She would have to strut in front of the people in the brown linen pants and grey-white t-shirt she was wearing. Not used to appearing in public in such drab clothing, she sighed, raised her chin, and walked outside in the hope her fabricated confidence would make her more attractive.

Shuffling out of the building, she squinted her eyes as the late afternoon sun burned her sockets. Blinking rapidly to adjust her eyesight, she toddled into the middle of the dirt path.


Kitty bumped into a heavy-set woman with blonde hair and asked, “Can you tell me where I can get some food and drink?”


The woman smiled. “Sure.” She pointed to a large metal building with a tin roof a few hundred feet from where they stood.


Bowing her head slightly, Kitty said, “Thank you so much.”


“There’s no need to be so formal here,” the woman said, lifted Kitty’s head with her hand. “We’re all family.”


Kitty tugged her ear and pursed her lips. “Um, okay.” She realized her usual poise would not work in the Oblivion community. Everyone was far too friendly to make room for any pretense. She turned around to march to her destination.


The woman yelled from behind her with a sweet voice, “Enjoy your meal. I look forward to getting to know you.”


Refusing to turn back around, Kitty lifted her hand in acknowledgment and walked away.

The metal building with the tin roof had large steel barn doors that slid open to the side. Though Kitty wanted to enter quietly, the wheels on the track that opened the door screeched loudly, alerting her presence to everyone in the room.


The community usually filled the room to near capacity during mealtimes, but only a couple dozen men and women were hanging out during that off-hour. They drank coffee and enjoyed conversation, one of whom was Penelope. 


When Kitty walked in, Penelope shot to her feet and motioned to the new recruit to sit with them. “Come join us!” she said, yelling across the room. 


Kitty’s chin dipped down, and her cheeks turned red. All she wanted was some food, but small talk would have to be the payment. She meandered toward her only friend in the establishment and sat down next to her.


Penelope beamed with joy, introducing to Kitty to the rest of the group.


Knowing everyone there probably knew her already, she thought the introduction futile, but she humored Penelope’s politeness by smiling and nodding her head. “It’s nice to meet all of you.”


One thick middle-aged man with curly brown hair pushed a bowl of crackers in front of Kitty and said, “Here. I’m sure you must be hungry.”


Picking up one cracker, she brought it to her mouth and took a bite. She somewhat grimaced at the stale snack on her tongue that sucked all the moisture out of her mouth. Trying not to be rude, she did her best to keep her displeasure to herself, but one of the other group members stood and walked toward her.


“Wash it down with this,” the woman said, giving her a cup of water.


Kitty sipped the cup.


The woman nodded. “Drink up. I’m sure you’re thirsty.”


Scanning the group, the people seemed like they were staring at her as some kind of caged animal. With wide eyes, she sipped the cup again and then forgot about her watchers. She was thirsty, on the verge of dehydration. Closing her eyes, she chugged the water, some spilling out the sides of her mouth. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand, breathing sharply.


Looking at the group who were looking back at her, she retreated into her mind and shrunk down in her seat.


Penelope laughed and said to the group. “She’s been through a lot. Y’all give her some space and I’ll make sure she gets some proper food.”


They smiled and cleared their dishes, bidding Kitty whole-hearted farewells.


“Sorry about that,” Penelope said, standing up. “You stay here and I’ll get you something a little more substantial than dry crackers.”


She came back five minutes later with a tray of various offerings—powdered eggs, applesauce, canned meat, and a scoop of mashed potatoes. In a Styrofoam cup was apple juice. “This should do you for now,” said Penelope, placing the tray in front of Kitty.


Kitty stared at the food for a moment with a half-cocked frown before picking up a spoon and shoveling it into her mouth. She wasn’t used to eating like an animal, but after having no food in days, poise did not seem the proper response to filling her stomach. Not in Oblivion, anyway.


Eating and drinking, and not giving a second thought to how she looked, she felt free. No fake smiles. No one to please. No part to play. She could indulge her appetite, and not only was she not judged for doing so, but Penelope also encouraged her to do it.


Halfway through her food, Penelope glanced over at her and asked, “How are you feeling?”

Swallowing a mouthful of potatoes, Kitty replied, “What do you mean?”


“I mean, you were pretty upset earlier. Do you want to talk about it?”


To keep her emotions closely guarded, Kitty took a sip of juice and said, “I’m fine. Thank you for the food.”


“Do you like it?”


“It’s not quite what I’m used to, but I guess it’ll work.”


Penelope chuckled. “I’m sure you’re used to the finer things of this world.”


“I guess you could call it that,” Kitty said, shrugging her shoulders and devouring a bite of eggs.


Folding her hands on the table, Penelope took a deep breath. “What kinds of foods did you get to have?”


Kitty dropped her spoon on the tray and turned her body toward Penelope, big eyes searching around the room. “What didn’t I have? Cooked meat, baked desserts, fresh fruit. Cheese.” Forming her hands into a ball, her face became alive. “There’s this one dish my servant made me. It was round and chocolate. When he poured the buttered cream sauce over it, it melted and revealed a new dessert inside. There was ice cream in it, on top of a small chocolate square. It was kinda cakey or chewy, maybe. I don’t remember what it’s called, but it was delicious.”


“So, your masters treated you well?” Penelope asked, squinting her eyes.


With a heavy sigh, Kitty answered, “There were some perks to being loved, for sure.”


“Would you give up the perks if it meant being free from their cruelty?”


Curled lips, Kitty gazed down at her remaining food. “When Chuké died, I thought about running away, but I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to end up in the Burrows with the rejects, but I didn’t want to stay either. I could give my love easily when I was the only one being hurt, but they hurt my friend, I couldn’t give my love as easily. My dedication to the job was slipping, and I needed a place to process my feelings. I started with small deviances—posting pictures without makeup and wearing clothes that didn’t show off my figure. The head of the Gallery tolerated it for a time, but when my deviances increased to publicly airing my questions about Atina, he took away some of my perks and forced me into more compromising situations with the leaders of the other organizations. So, you ask if I would give it all up to be free.” Picking up her spoon, she scooped a portion of potatoes on it and plopped it back down on the tray. “Look at where I am. Do I really have much of a choice, anymore?”


Penelope stood and glared down at Kitty. “You always have a choice, and you cannot choose both. You may not like it here, but you also don’t like it in Atina. At some point, you must choose where you belong. For your sake, I hope you choose correctly.” She scooted her chair under the table and dipped her chin. “Just know that I love you. We all love you.”


“But you don’t even know me.”


“I don’t have to know you to love you. I love you because you’re part of our family now.”


Kitty rolled her eyes. “But I’m not. I’m still just an outsider.”


Leaning on the back of the chair, Penelope shook her head and smiled. “Not to me, Kitty. Not to me.”


***

Kitty sat on an oak stump in what the community called their Sanctuary. It was a large circle with hundreds of other wood stumps like the one she sat on, aligning the circumference like a halo. Further into the circle was a large open space, dirt matted down by thousands of footprints.


At the center of the circle was a ring of different-sized stones that acted as a firepit. It was eight feet in diameter, large enough for bonfires. The pit was dirty, full of ashen coals and half-burned logs. It appeared as if nobody cleaned it in years. Warmth from the coals of the fire the night before was faint, but still true.


Because Kitty had eaten only an hour before the designated dinner time, she sat in the Sanctuary by herself while everyone else was busy in the cafeteria.


She didn’t want to admit it, but Penelope was right. She couldn’t have the luxuries of Atina and the freedom of being in Oblivion. She was so used to being treated like royalty during the day, she often forgot the nights when they treated her like a slave. She forgot because the drugs she took made her forget. They made the long nights bearable.


Though she didn’t have the addiction Chuké had, she often yearned for the escape, anything to desensitize her from pleasuring another superior, the ones whom Atina’s laws apparently didn’t apply. 


She was sick, just like the Temple said she was. She was only acting out the way a person with the sickness would act. She didn’t assume the Atinean leaders were sick because she was told they were immune. They inherited the blessing of the Temple for serving Atina in such high respects. The only thing she knew was the kind of love Atina commanded from her made her feel like that firepit, dirty.


But the love between Penelope and Cicero was something different. It was innocent. At the moment Kitty saw them together, she could tell there was mutual respect. Neither one tried to intoxicate themselves to forget the other. Quite the opposite. They reveled in each other’s company, as if they were making a memory to last the rest of their lives. It was something to remind themselves every time they walked by the women’s dorm together. Hey, remember when we kissed against the door frame.


Kitty couldn’t understand it, but she wanted it. She wanted to rest in the arms of a man without the expectation to get on her knees. She wanted someone to return her love, though she wasn’t even sure what love really meant. Atina’s definition and Oblivion’s definition were different.


The Gallery showed the beauty and love of Atina, through song and poetry and fashion and stories. But maybe it was all propaganda, an elaborate lie to paint the goddess’ fairy tale as truth. Or maybe Kitty was so filled with the sickness that questioning Atina was only another symptom. Atina protects us. Atina cares for us. Atina is our friend. Truth or lie? Kitty was too simple to know. 


All she knew was how she felt, and she felt like she wanted what Penelope and Cicero had, someone to hold her and kiss her, and be worthy enough to remember the next day.


Staring at the ground and pinching her bottom lip, she stayed in the same position, watching the sun descend to darkness. Her conflicted meditations would have fueled her well into the night, but members of the community started piling into the Sanctuary, jerking her mind from her waking slumber.


“Hey, Kitty!” said a younger man with olive skin. “I’m glad you could join us tonight.”


Kitty scooted to the back of her stump and shrunk back. “You know who I am?”


Eyes widening, the young man replied, “Of course, we know you. We all know who Kitty Montgomery is.”


Embarrassed by his directness, she folded her arms over her chest. “Oh,” she said, looking down. “I didn’t realize my reputation would follow me here.”


The man furled his eyebrows, but before he could say anything to explain himself, some of his friends motioned to him to sit with them. Like a dog distracted by the slightest provocation, he turned his head and gave his attention to his comrades. Smiling, he walked over to them and unwittingly dismissed his conversation with Kitty.


Soon, everyone filled the Sanctuary, taking their seats with anxious anticipation. Penelope and Cicero sat in the front row holding hands on a bench made of a four-foot tree trunk cut down the middle length-wise. 


They watched the firepit as a few community members gathered some kindling to start a fire. Once the kindling sufficiently caught the flame, the members steadily added the firewood, starting with the smallest logs first.


The group awakened with the sounds of joy and celebration. Everyone laughed, hollering into the air with their raucous screams. Some people sang. Others had instruments. Not everyone was doing the same thing, but they were all in unity.


The higher the flame got, the louder the group became, until the blaze was so large, it could lick the tops of people’s heads. More singing. More laughing. More cheering. It was like one of her Gallery parties, except everyone had a sober mind.


The party continued until the leader of the group stepped forward. The crowd hushed. It was the man people called Watchman, the one who the people said started the community, though Watchman wouldn’t say it like that. He gave all credit and praise to the One who gathered them all together.


With the people silent, Watchman searched the eyes of the community as he lumbered around the fire. Heel. Toe. Heel. Toe. Slowly. Intentionally. Kitty couldn’t get a good look at him. He was only a shadow of a man from her vantage point, but that he had so much control over the multitude—without saying a single word—he roused her curiosity. She scrutinized his every step until he stopped.


“You are here,” he said, bellowing into the horde, “because the One has set you free. He has shown us genuine love, demanding only that we partake and share it with each other. Because we are free, we can leave at any time. Oblivion is not your prison. It is your salvation. Some have tasted this precious gift and chose to return to their oppression. We do not condemn them. For this,” he said, pointing to the ground, “is not a simple path to take.”


“Some days, we have no food. Atina hunts us like deer. Our lodgings are even more meager than the ones the goddess herself provided for us. We have to scrape to survive. For some, Oblivion seems like bondage. They’d rather return to Atina, like a dog to its vomit, then tolerate our lifestyle. We bless them and send them on their way.”


Lifting his finger to the sky, he yelled, “But for those of you who stay, you are part of the family. You know that scraps are tolerable for the reward we receive here.” He stepped toward one of the group members and put his hand on his shoulder. “Intimacy.”


Watchmen lifted his hands and intertwined his fingers. “We are connected. We love each other. In this community, we are not only expected to give our love, but we are expected to receive it. We do not toil away our lives for masters perched in ivory towers. No! We give and we take. Ebb and flow. Family. Intimacy. True Love.”


He preached for another twenty minutes while Kitty sat stunned. Time with the computer overwhelmed her with truth, but Watchman took that truth and communicated it in a way that she couldn’t reject. He made the message attractive. She wanted even more than before the love that Penelope and Cicero shared. Her skin was on fire, her breathing heavy. She didn’t know what was happening, but suddenly, she cried. Tears of longing flowed down her face.


A woman sitting next to Kitty reached out her hand. Grabbing Kitty’s hand, she rubbed it with her thumb, mumbling words under her breath that were indistinguishable. Kitty leaned her head back and let the woman’s gentleness soothe her like a hot spring.


When Watchman finished with his message, he shouted with a loud blast of merriment, “Time to dance!”


While Kitty was still sniffling, the woman sitting next to her led her by the hand into the large open space around the fire. The instrumentalists struck up their guitars and drums. The singers filled the night with beautiful melodies. And everyone else joined arms, frolicking around the conflagration with dumb smiles splashed on their faces.


The circle of dancers rotated with people jumping up and down and sideways. The woman sitting next to Kitty got swept up in the commotion and couldn’t be found in the mess of gaiety.


Turning her head frantically to the left and to the right, Kitty tried to make sense of the undignified display before her, but she couldn’t comprehend, not until she spotted Penelope and Cicero dancing together. She resolved in her mind that if she had what they had, then she could belong in the group and everything would make sense.


She danced through the throng of people to get to the couple, but the closer she got, they would move again, further away. She steeled herself like a gazelle and stopped dancing. Pushing everyone out of her way, she pressed through the crowd until she got to her prize.


Tapping Penelope’s shoulder, she asked, “Do you mind if I have this dance?”


Everyone danced with each other, so the formal request was odd, but nothing inappropriate. Penelope seemed happy that Kitty was finally feeling like she belonged. She gave Cicero’s hand to Kitty and said, “Have fun!”


Standing in front of Kitty, Cicero said, “How are you—”


Before he could finish his sentence, she grabbed both sides of his face and kissed him, trying to slip her tongue passed his lips, but he wouldn’t open his mouth.


He pushed her away, and the music stopped. Penelope stood motionless, mouth gaping open. The dancers ceased their movement.


“Do you not love me like you’re supposed to?” Kitty shouted at Cicero, neck vein bulging.


Wiping his mouth, he replied, “I’m sorry, but I only love you like a sister.”


Just then, she realized a hard truth. Nobody in Oblivion knew her because of her old life. They knew her because of her place in their family. Love for them was not sexual. It was purer.


Everyone stared at her, waiting to see what she would say. She looked about the crowd until she landed her eyes on Penelope, whose body was shaking.


Trembling in place, Kitty said, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” She ran away from the group, back to the women’s dorm where she crawled into her bed and threw the covers over her face.


***


Kitty couldn’t fall asleep, even though she pretended to slumber as the women in the community piled into the dorm at the end of the night. To her surprise, no one was whispering hurtful words behind her back. As the women got ready, all they could say was how much they enjoyed the dancing and the laughing.


Penelope, at one point, spoke up to her peers. “At breakfast, let’s show Kitty the power of forgiveness. She needs to know that we love her.” She paused and added, “unconditionally.”


Another woman asked, “Are you sure?”


With a solemn voice, Penelope answered, “She’ll never know we love her if we don’t look past her mistakes.”


Kitty’s throat clenched, unable to control her breathing. Forgiveness? She had betrayed Penelope’s friendship, spit on the love she had for Cicero. Kitty didn’t deserve forgiveness. She deserved punishment. She deserved to be cast out of the community and sent back to her masters at the Gallery.


A warm sensation filled her body. It was a similar feeling she had when Watchman pierced her heart with his words. She cried into her pillow, utterly confused.


The women in the dorm went to sleep while the haunting screams of condemnation attacked Kitty’s mind. You’re not good enough. Leave now. You don’t deserve to be loved.


She tossed in her bed, trying to make the voice cease, but it would not relent.


You’re dirty. You’re sick. Go back to your masters. They’re the only ones who can help you.


Silently screaming into her pillow, a fresh voice entered her thoughts. It was Watchman, repeating the words of his message. We are connected. Intimacy. Genuine love.


To join the Oblivion family, she would have to cut ties with Atina—not just her desire for pleasure, but also her mindsets. People in Oblivion thought differently. They didn’t suck life from each other, but they gave it. It produced joy and belonging. She wanted that, more than she wanted her treats.


She knew what she had to do, and that resolution gave her enough peace to close her eyes and truly rest for the first time in her life.


***

The women went to breakfast, but they didn’t bother to wake up Kitty. What they didn’t know is that she was already awake, but still feeling nervous about facing them. She waited until every one of them left before washing up and heading to the cafeteria.


Inside her mind, she wrestled with what she would do when she entered the hall, but there was no time for hesitation. She looked at her all-natural face in the mirror and chuckled. “If only they could see me now.”


Putting on a clean shirt, she headed out of the dorm and marched to the cafeteria. Sliding open the screeching doors, the people in the cafeteria, who filled up most of the seats, glanced in her direction. To her surprise, they all went back to their meals and conversations rather quickly. 


She grabbed a tray and strolled through the food line—more powdered eggs and applesauce. The lack of options forced a smirk on her face.


The woman who scooped the applesauce on Kitty’s tray saw a glimpse of light on her face and said, “You have a pretty smile.”


Lowering her head and folding her hair behind her ear, she replied, “Thanks.”


Kitty wandered around the room for a less populated table. Finding one with only a few people she had never seen before, she asked, “May I sit here?”


A man with walnut skin and a wrinkled forehead smiled and nodded his head. “You may sit wherever you like.”


Nodding her head in return, she pulled out a chair and sat in silence.


As she ate her food, her shoulders became tense. She saw Penelope and Cicero six tables away from hers. Trying to muster the courage to do what she needed to do, she slowed down her breathing. Now is as good a time as any, she thought.


She wiped her mouth with a napkin and scooted out her chair. Standing on her seat, Kitty yelled, “May I get your attention?”


Everyone turned toward her.


“There is no excuse for my behavior last night.” She looked directly at Penelope. “I’m sorry for how I treated you.” Turning her head away, she glanced around the room. “I’m sorry for how I treated all of you. I saw you as my enemies, not my family.” Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. “I’m not much for public speaking.” A single tear falling down the side of her face, she opened her mouth to sing:

The little girl cries, she has no home

Stripped of her dignity, she wanders alone

A master comes knocking, on the door her heart

He promises love, and her new life starts

She gives him pleasure, and questions him not

Late in the night, in his trap she is caught

She no longer cries, no more tears left to shed

Inside of her heart, she’s already dead

Then a rescuer saves her, takes the dead girl away

Breathes life in her lungs, to live new day

The little girl still cries, but no longer from fear

She now has a home, for the rest of her years

Kitty climbed down from her chair and sat, not a dry eye in the room. She took a bite of eggs and acted as if nothing happened.


Penelope shot to her feet and raced through the cafeteria to get to Kitty. She grabbed Kitty’s hand and pulled her up. Whimpering, she smiled. “I’m so happy you found a home with us.” She wrapped her arms around Kitty and squeezed tightly.


“I’m so sorry,” Kitty said, resting her head on Penelope’s shoulder.


“I forgive you.”


The crowd cheered with the same rowdy energy as the night before, clapping their hands and shouting with joy. 


Oblivion received a new member to their family that day, and they couldn’t be happier.

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