The Fiction Challenge: ‘The Awakening’ by Michelle Gunnin

Editor’s Note:

Hello all, the fiction writing challenge has been great thus far. We have had a lot of submissions; those that made it through to publication were really good stories. That said, we should be ready for a final call for votes by early next week. I wish each of you the best of luck. There will be a final post next week with all of the stories listed for a last chance “call to vote” (staff not included, they can’t win). Make sure you get all of your fans, friends, family, etc., to come and vote on your story. Best of luck, and thanks for your awesome participation.


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The Awakening

Brandon sprinted down the street in a full run.  I tried to keep up.  Even as a kid, he could always outrun me, despite the fact he was two years younger.  He made a sharp right turn at the next alley, and I glanced over my shoulder to see if our pursuers were within sight distance.  Nothing.  I zagged right as well, just in time to see Brandon’s feet disappear into the dumpster.  Pushing off of one step on the fire escape ladder, I vaulted myself in right behind him.

“Great hiding place, little brother,” I huffed.

“Shhhh.  They might hear you sucking wind, Sis,” he grinned as he dug deeper into the heap of trash.

“Not funny,” I retorted.  But he was right.  I was sucking wind, and he was hardly breathing hard.  It had been too long since our childhood foot races. In this moment, there is no time for sibling rivalry.  I gulped in deep breaths and focused on slowing my heart rate and trying to gain my strength.  It would have been much easier if I wasn’t inhaling putrid air from the garbage I was sinking into.  In trying to make sure I was completely covered, I pushed rotting food and what appeared to be cat litter over my body.  Sacks of trash containing used diapers and old rags became my shield of protection. It occurred to me, while we were trying to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible, that we were actually becoming saturated with the smells around us. If we managed to evade our captors and escape, surely, we would be noticed by our smell at the train station.  I had to put the thought out of my mind – all thoughts out of my mind, or they would give us away.  One problem at a time.

It hadn’t always been this way.  When we were kids, things were good.  We ran free without fear of being snatched, or stolen, because of something we thought. We played stickball in the street.  We knew all our neighbors and they knew us.  Our apartment building was a community who looked out for one another.  There was never a thought to riding our bikes to the park a few blocks down around the corner.

The baker waved and shouted, “How’s your mama?” and we shouted back, “She is fine! She is coming to buy some pastries from you tomorrow.”

“I will make sure to have the chocolate ones, ready for her!”

On we would ride, trying to be the first to arrive at the park.  Always in competition, the two of us.  If not with each other, with the O’Malley twins or Hamid, the other kids in our building.  Everyone knew and trusted everyone. We were friendly with all the vendors on the street along the way, and they called us the Five Filos. The name was given to us by the owner of a Greek restaurant who told us he had some childhood friends like us in the old country. “They were joined at the hip,” he said.  We didn’t really know the language but the name, the Five Friends, stuck and we kind of liked being known as our own little group. We were competitive in a fun way like it should be…never cutthroat. Occasionally the girls would team up and try to defeat our brothers at some game or another, and if we did, they would hear about it for weeks afterward. As we grew up we still were close even when our paths took us in different directions.

Brandon had been in love with Shannon O’Malley for years before he was brave enough to ask her to the school dance. They were quite a pair, all dressed up in their finest clothes.  By that time, I was out of the house in my own place and going to the community college just one town over. However, I came home just for the occasion of teasing my kid brother on his first real date.  Shannon’s brother, Manny, came over for the same reason and maybe a bit of brotherly protection as well.  We stuck around and hung out together once the couple was appropriately harassed and on their way.  Hamid stopped by as well.  Being the oldest of the friend group, he had finished school already and was working at some tech company in the city. Yet, he still found time to come home every weekend to check on his ailing mother. Laughter and conversation flowed out like a familiar river.  It was as if we had never been apart.

“Katy, do you think your brother is in love with my sister?” asked Manny.

“He has been in love with her since the time she fell off her bike and he “rescued” her when they were 7 years old,” I told him.

“Well, he’d better keep out of trouble and take good care of her.”

“It is one date.  Do not put too much stock in one date,” I stated matter-of-factly.

“You know if they end up together someday, that will make us related,” Manny said.

Hamid said, “Yes, then you would have TWO brothers to pick on.”

“Please NO!” I playfully shouted. We bantered back and forth for hours, and the truth is, none of us would have minded being related to the other because it was like we already were.

But that was before The Empowering.  The new program started off as a good thing.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be empowered? Hamid became the director of the Technology Division, while Manny joined the Communication Division. Shannon and I joined the Women’s Division.  Brandon was the only one who didn’t sign up for the new Empowerment Program.  He said he preferred to wait and see where all this was going.  I thought he was crazy, but he had always been a free thinker.  For me, it was a no-brainer.  Find the things I am best at and be empowered to do them. That is how the program started, helping people find themselves.

Soon after, my brilliant friend Hamid and his Division developed a new technology called, InnerThought, which revolutionized how we did everything.  Instead of having to carry around a device to access information, they came up with a way to program your own brain.  Instead of a Google search, I simply had to think my question and the information was instantly in my head.  To send an email, I just thought of what I wanted to say and then thought of who I wanted to send it to. At first, it was difficult because it took great focus to direct my thoughts, but over time it became easier.  Soon, my brain was just like a computer in a network of other computers. I could send random ideas and opinions in an instant, simply by using my thoughts.

Combined, InnerThought and The Empowering were like the perfect storm.  Thoughts whizzed through the air finding their mark.  What started as ideas, became an ideology, which became rhetoric, which became arrogance, which became hostility.  Each Division became entrenched in their own Empowerment. In our desire to be granted the power to be equal, we lost sight of the power of unity.  Soon the thoughts of my Division were deeply embedded in my mind. I couldn’t see or hear any others’ thoughts over my own, of which I was passing out by the thousands.  I was locked up in a prison of my own ideas and opinions.  Any thoughts sent to me from those, not in my Division, I disregarded as not credible. Eventually, I blocked all of them with the power of my mind.

Honestly, the only person I would listen to was Brandon, and only because he had no Division.  He listened to me.  He understood or seemed to anyway.  When I moved to the Women’s Division headquarters, he helped me carry my stuff.  When Hamid moved into the Technology Division’s home office, he did the same. As The Empowering progressed, each of us disengaged from one another, except for him. He remained true to our friendships and that is what landed me in this dumpster.

Steps on the pavement snapped me back to the present.  I tried to imagine myself to be tiny, and I tried to hold my breath and be as still as a stone. Brandon took my hand and squeezed. We were in this together; If we were caught we would go hand in hand.  I could hear my heart beating in my ears, so loudly I knew they were going to hear it too, but the footfalls faded.  They continued down the street and bypassed the alley.  We waited five minutes before we dared to move.

“Do you think they’ve gone?” my voice trembled.

“Sounds like it,” Brandon assured me.

“How do we know if it is safe?”

“We don’t,” said Brandon.

“Great…thanks for the encouragement,” I chided.

“You’re Welcome.  Anything for you, Sis.”

One thing about Brandon is that he is about as chill as you can get.  Even when he was coming to the rescue and breaking me out of my Division he wasn’t flustered or worried in the least.  I, on the other hand, was terrified we would be caught because I knew the consequences were dire.  I knew that anyone else who had tried to leave our Division was never seen again.

Brandon pushed his head over the top of the dumpster with great caution. I was still holding my breath and clinging to a bag, just in case I had to dive again.  Two years in Division headquarters had taught me to fear the unexpected.  The knowledge that the Enlightened Ones could be just outside the dumpster, in the shadows waiting for me, made me shudder.

“The coast is clear,” said Brandon.

“I’m not sure I can get out of this mess,” I said.

“Oh, come on, you ALWAYS get out of messes…it’s a family trait,” he said with a smirk.

I breathed a little and replied, “Yes, it is always easy to get out of messes, when you have a little brother to blame things on.”

“And blame me you did.  Good thing I am charming enough to talk my way out of trouble.  Now, let’s go.”

“Wait. What’s the plan?” I asked.

“Trust me, Katy. I got this,” he said.

“Oh Brandon, I don’t know how to trust anymore,” I whispered.

He grabbed my hand and pulled me up.  He jumped the side of the dumpster and landed like a cat on the ground with nearly silent steps.

“Give me your hand,” he said.

I raised myself up and tried to ignore the garbage falling off of me.  I peeked over the top and saw no one, so I took Brandon’s hand.  I was much less graceful in my exit, landing on the street with a thud.

“Let’s go. I bet I can beat you to the train station!” I said with a weary smile.

I had been up to become an Enlightened One after two years of proving myself worthy.  I always admired the way they exuded confidence, and I wanted to be like that, but I had also seen the rigid way they handled The Simple Ones.  The Simple Ones, poor things, just couldn’t grasp the ideals of the Division.  They were deemed pitiful, unintelligent and in need of strict discipline.  In my mind, I had thought when I became an Enlightened One, I could handle them with a bit more compassion, and it was that thought which had ultimately gotten me into trouble.

I was in my own unit, just soaking in the proclamation which had been made that I was “ready.”  I was so honored to have been chosen, but I began to think about my new role and how I could be the best Enlightened One possible.  When I thought it, I immediately knew I had let my mind wander.  I redirected my thoughts but the damage was already done.  The Director had intercepted my musings.  All the work for years to prove myself, undone, with one thought. I went from the height of success to a basement cell in one day. I became a Simple One, who was in need of discipline. The confusion flooded me, but deep down I understood my error…my thoughts of compassion were weak.  But in my mind, I wondered, is weak the same thing as wrong? I was immediately put into isolation and cut off from anyone but the Enlightened One assigned to “retrain and cleanse” my mind. I saw that the goal I had aspired to, to be Enlightened, would have made me more computer than human.  She was brutal, and it was a complete surprise to me that this kind of brutality was a part of our Division. We stood for empowerment after all; it’s all any Division wanted, to empower their people.  Shouldn’t we seek it for every person in our Division, even the Simple Ones?

As I curled up on the floor of my cell one night, I recognized for the first time that the Simple Ones were really the ones who questioned the Division, the Empowering, and anything else the rest of us were espousing. As much as I didn’t want to believe I would participate in such a system, the truth was right in front of me. I was guilty of the very things I said I was against. I wept.  For the pain in my head, for my part in a system that did the opposite of what I believed it was doing, for my current situation…all of it. In that instant, I received a short and broken thought from my long-ago childhood friend Manny. I couldn’t be sure how it got through the thought shield they had around me, my only guess was that Manny was using his position in the Communication Division to send renegade thoughts…definitely illegal.

It said, “Avoid Enlightenment. Brandon…coming…be ready, filos.”

I held the message in my mind, careful not to ponder it for too long, lest it set off the thought alarm to my captor.  I had to dispose of it before my next “cleansing” or it would surely come out. I was so weak from the cleansing program, the last thing I needed was for an illegal thought to come out and jeopardize any rescue attempt…if there was even going to be such a thing.  The thought could be a plant, as so many had been in this house of horrors I was living in. I put it out of my mind as much as I possibly could, and closed my eyes to sleep.  In my dream, Brandon came and lifted me up. I slumped into his arms, feeling safe for the first time in since my cleansing had begun.  Only it wasn’t a dream. It was my rescue.

I was right. Our smell tipped off the Enlightened Ones at the train station.  We were identified as runaways. Simple minded ones who didn’t know what was best for ourselves; at least that was the thought which was sent out to all those waiting on the platform. As they closed in, we sprinted just ahead of the oncoming train scrambling across the tracks with inches to spare. By the time the train passed we were well out of sight of the station and into the shadows.

“That was too close, Brandon.  Where are we going? Please, you have to tell me.” I begged.

“You’re right.  We are going home,” stated Brandon.

“Home!?  That’s the first place they’ll look!  They are not stupid, little brother,” I fumed.

“I cannot tell you everything, only that we have a plan.”

“Who is we?” I puffed as we kept running.

“It is not safe to even think of them in order to tell you.  But deep down you know who…but don’t think about it, just move…no thinking.  Filos have risked their lives for you and are risking them still,” said Brandon.

Down the street and around the next corner we sprinted between the street lights, looking for the cover of the shadows. The streets were unusually quiet even for nighttime. Behind us, it seemed the coast was clear.

“I think we lost them,” Brandon assessed.

We slowed our pace.  I was heaving and trying to catch my breath.

“Let’s walk a bit,” I said.

“You are such a wimp.  A little ‘cleansing’ and you have gone soft and weak,” he teased.

“Don’t make me hurt you, Brandon!” I countered.

“No. That would be MY job,” said a woman’s voice.

Blinded by a sudden spotlight as bright as the sun, I could not make out her face, but her voice was familiar through the fog of my mind. The lone figure advanced; an Enlightened One. My heart dropped. We’d been caught.  It was over now. We were blocked from forward movement by her vehicle, and there were footsteps of others behind us, though I couldn’t see how many. We were trapped. Fear clawed at my throat and panic rose like bile in my chest.  I wanted nothing more than to run or to lay down and die. Her face came into the light as she approached and I gasped.

“Shannon?” I asked incredulously.

“Hi, Shannon.  Good to see you again,” said Brandon.

For one second I saw a look pass between them, but then Shannon’s chin came up and set in place.  Her computerized face only looked faintly like her old self from our childhood days. She was mostly machine now, and the pathways were etched into her skin. She had a job to do, and she planned to do it.

“Brandon, I should have known it was you…I did know it, deep down.  Some things never change,” she said.

“Awww, Shannon, you say that like it’s a bad thing,” he grinned.

“This is not one of your games, Brandon.  This is a matter of breaking the law of the Divisions. You are encouraging others to think for themselves, to understand one another, and to walk away from the ideals we set forth in order to be empowered.  A very serious offense.”

“So is falling in love with an Enlightened One, but you haven’t arrested me for that yet.”

Shannon appeared to blush and was flustered at his comment.  He used the second to signal me with his eyes.  His meaning was clear.  I was to run when the time was right.  I gave him my best I-will-not-leave-you-stare, but I knew it was the only chance of escape. We would have to separate. We didn’t dare send thoughts to one another at this time, for it would surely mean our deaths.  He turned his face back to Shannon and continued to bombard her with his love for her, hoping to break the programming of her mind.

“Shannon, you know I would never desire to take power from any Division. And I have done nothing but love you since we were kids. It was never a game for me, I just didn’t want to give up my friendships or my heart.  To be in a Division, it must come first, even over love, isn’t that, right?”

“Stop that talk right now!  Do you hear me? Stop it!” shouted Shannon.

I heard the footsteps closing in on us now.  Shannon hadn’t given the order yet. She was hesitating.  He was getting into her head, and he didn’t seem to be slowing down his dangerous game.

“I will not stop.  I will speak the truth. In order for YOU to be empowered, you have to disempower someone else. Everyone cannot be empowered at once, it doesn’t work that way. Then to be Enlightened, you have to be one who judges who is worthy of being empowered, since there is only so much power to go around. Isn’t that right? You become the all-knowing one who determines the destiny of people like me, people who don’t fit into your Divisions.  I don’t encourage them to leave, Shannon…I wake them up. They leave on their own, once they are awakened.”

I had never heard Brandon more passionate.  His voice was trembling as he spoke.

“And when they wake up,” he continued, “They feel again.  All the feelings, not just the ones assigned to them of hate, frustration, and fury.” He was inches from her face now.  “Like love. They wake up to it.  Shannon, remember that feeling?” He kissed her passionately then, and I knew it was my signal to run. A most unexpected distraction for Shannon.

As her team descended on him, pulling them apart, I found an opening and I ran through it.  He continued to reach for Shannon as they drug him down.  She raged at the nerve of him, and the poison she spewed was unrelenting. I was forgotten. He was face down on the ground, hands behind his back, surrounded by Division security.  She was pacing back and forth in fury, and as I took one last look over my shoulder, he winked at me.  Even with the Division thugs raging over him, he kept his head and his charm.

He was going to pay for my freedom, probably with his life.  My way home was cleared for me by his act of bravery and love. Hours later, as I was approaching the park where I hoped to find what was left of the Five Filos, my eyes were still stinging from the tears I had shed. A thought came to me from Brandon, which meant he was still alive.  I don’t know how he got it to me…how he got past the thought shield they had surely put around him by now, but his message was clear.

“Four Filos awakened.  Only this one to go.  Then the masses.”


Monthly Contributor: Michelle Gunnin

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Michelle Gunnin:

An everyday woman who is a writer, a wife, a mom of four nearly grown children, a teacher, a colleague, a sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, a caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. She has more questions than answers, and she writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her. You can follow her blog at michellesmosaic.wordpress.com

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11 comments

  1. Michelle, you may be an everyday woman, but you are not an everyday writer. Great story, and I agree with your husband. I would read your novel and that says a lot from someone who doesn’t read sci-fi.

    Like

  2. Michelle! AI ( Artificial Intelligence)? It made me think about a shadow government we may possibly have now or having to go against our core values. Our voices maybe stifled, but hopefully it wont lead to mind control. This was freaky good stuff! Good job! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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