Declan O’Brien had done a bad thing. In the past three hours he had broken two laws—Laws 8.14 and 1590.2 to be exact. Instead of entering the next available house after work, he had knowingly walked by hundreds of green lights to reach the outskirts of The City. To make matters worse, it was after nine o’clock and The Police could arrest him at a moment’s notice for being out past curfew. But no matter: he had a goal in mind. Continuing down the deserted street, O’Brien counted exactly seventy-one steps from the corner before he turned to his right and looked up.
33 Millbury Lane stared back at him. His childhood home. It was of little importance that in place of the white picket fence and red bricks from his memory was the exact same two-story gray house that lined the entire City. Everything about it was right. The tree with the split trunk in the front lawn was there (albeit significantly taller), the distant smell of smoke wafted in from the ammunitions factory, and even the--
—the red light? O’Brien blinked at the sight. In devising his entire plan to disobey The Government by returning to his original home, it had never occurred to him that it could be occupied. In that exact moment as O’Brien stood awkwardly on the front step and contemplated his next course of action, the thirty-something year old man inside looked up and coincidentally meet his eye through the window. In a flash, the father was out of his chair and on the other side of the front door, leaving his wife and two children behind at the dining table.
“What the hell are you doing here?” the man demanded.
“I could ask you the exact same question,” O’Brien retorted. “This is MY house.”
“Citizen, can’t you see? There no longer is any YOUR house or MY house. That’s the wholepoint of “INEQUALITY IS INTOLERABLE.” Haven’t you been listening to the slogans?”
The slogans the man was referring to were the ones instituted by The Government when it took over after the collapse of the old capitalist system in 2074 from sustained inequality. As part of a new, stricter system of order, the central idea of “EQUITY THROUGH EQUALITY” permeated all aspects of life. The idea was that if all citizens in The City were the same, the evils of competition and competitive advantage would be completely eradicated. In reality, this meant that O’Brien’s life was filled with the exactly same things as everyone else’s: the man staring back at him, although likely a good twenty years younger, wore the same clothes, the same shoes, and had the same haircut as him. They probably even used the same toothpaste.
In response, O’Brien reached into his inside jacket pocket and curled his fingers around a cold, slim piece of metal. Drawing out a twisted piece of steel with a microchip embedded in the center of the bow, he thrust it in the direction of the man. “Well, if it’s all the same to you, why can’t you just take your stupid Key elsewhere? I used to live here, after all!”
The man pointed to the red light over the doorknob with exasperation and shouted back, “Doesn’t first come first served mean anything to you? People like you who get overly attached are reason why the system was invented in the first place!”
The principle of The Key was actually quite simple. It was specifically designed by scientists in The Government to make the process of returning home as equal as possible. Even those with lower intelligences could understand it without trouble because they only needed to remember two simple things: red means occupied, green means vacant. An individual would walk past the identical two-story, square cement structures until he or she came to the first one with a green light over the doorknob. By slipping a unique Government-issued Key into the slot, the house would automatically be filled with the individual’s personal belongings exactly as they had been left that morning. Likewise, removing it erased everything inside; all items would disappear until the next time The Key was inserted elsewhere. O’Brien had taken a huge risk that day by rebelling against the housing system: deliberately defying the established order in pursuit of a whim would most likely land him a life sentence in prison. Or death.
With that last outburst, the men’s raised voices caught the attention of the woman inside. Her anxious voice soon floated to the doorway. “Honey, is everything all right? Is it time to donate more clothing to the handicapped already? Wasn’t there a collection just last week?”
A petite lady with sand-colored hair soon appeared behind her husband in the doorway. Upon taking in the O’Brien’s appearance, she let out a quick, “Oh thank God.” Her face showed visible relief upon seeing that their unannounced visitor was in fact not a Government official come to remove all signs of advantage in their house. (She had gotten terribly attached to their new TV set lately, even though strictly speaking it was two inches larger than Law 367 allowed).
“Citizen, why don’t you come in and stay for a meal?” the woman offered graciously, clearly still thankful she would not be punished for the possession of illegal goods.
Her husband flashed her an expression of shock. “Absolutely not. He’s a trespasser and a probably a vagrant, too. Who knows what sort of danger he could bring in?”
At that, O’Brien had to defend himself. “I’ll have you know that I’m no vagrant! I’m only here to see my old childhood home!”
“Dear, you know if he wanders on the street The Police will find him sooner or later. Then we’ll be responsible for perpetuating inequality by making him stay outside while we sit here and enjoy our dinner. We have no choice—the law is the law.”
The man slowly but grudgingly accepted the truth. After all, he had grown up never knowing anything other than the idea that The Government—no matter how many new laws it passed—was always right. “Alright citizen, come in,” he said as he made way in the cement doorway for O’Brien to pass.
Once inside, O’Brien saw that the interior of this family’s house was quite similar to all others in The City. Peeking into the bedroom on the right, he spotted the same Government-issued stiff mattress, navy blanket, and steel bedside table that he had. The radio set rested ominously next to the bed, a constant reminder that The Police were always within earshot. The only slight differences from his own Key-programmed house were in the positioning of the furniture, the color of the carpet, and of course the family members inside.
“Here you go,” smiled the woman as she handed him a plate of food after he sat down at the dinner table. “You must be hungry after such a long walk.” She glanced meaningfully at his charcoal gray briefcase customary to all workers in city center. In reality, there was nothing in the briefcase. All jobs were simply filler positions created by The Government to fulfill the everlasting idea that “EVERYBODY IS EQUAL.” His coworkers were always repeating the eleven words that had been ingrained in their heads: “same job, same pay, same uniform equals no reason for discontent.”
O’Brien glanced down at his plate. The portion of peas and potatoes was exactly the same as everyone else’s. The amount of milk in each glass was exactly the same. Even the folding of the napkins was identical. The whole situation was utterly revolting. A strong surge of emotion heated him from the inside. Once again he was reminded of why he had decided to escape his rut of a routine and seek out his unique childhood home in the first place. Was it that hard to find something different, somethingindividual?
“Mom, I saw them building another floor on the big Government building today,” said one of the little girls sitting on the left side of the table. Her pigtails and green shirt were identical to that of her sister who was right next to her, even though they must have been at least three years apart in age.
“Yes, sweetie. You know they add a story to the original 175 floors each year to symbolize undying power. Isn’t it great how equality is making our Government grow?”
“Absolutely. I think they’re at 217 now. Sometimes I wonder what people did back in the old days.” The husband shuddered at the thought of such barbarism. “Can you even imagine some people getting fat and plump on their riches while others starve in the streets?”
All this family talk made O’Brien feel extremely old and outdated. Clearly the couple had been born after the Restoration and never even had memories of an older time where individuality was actually valued. In fact, at forty-nine years old, it was unusual for O’Brien to still be living alone in The City. By the time most adults reached his age, they had either found someone to marry or been paired off by The Government in husband-and-wife arrangements deemed most beneficial for continuing the human species in terms of equality. This meant the smart women married the less intelligent men and the good-looking men married the ugly women, or vice versa. That way the children would turn out to be completely average. He glanced again at the two girls sitting at the table: the only extraordinary thing about them was how absolutely ordinary they were.
The sound of incessant beeping sliced suddenly through the air and interrupted O’Brien’s thoughts. The family immediately stopped talking as the crackle of static signaled an incoming radio announcement. A few seconds later, the voice of a Government broadcaster filled the house.
“Good evening citizens. We bring to you today an important message from The Government. It has recently come to our attention that certain people have been pocketing additional groceries from the city stores. As a result, a mandatory food rationing system will be instituted beginning tomorrow. Each citizen will be limited to two pounds of flour, a half-pound of cheese, one bushel of apples, five stalks of celery…”
“How lovely!” exclaimed the woman. “Food shopping will now be easier than ever!”
And with that, O’Brien had had enough of all the Government-imposed restrictions, regulations, and rations. With a determined grunt he pushed back his chair, threw down his napkin, and strode forcibly out the front door.
As he left, he heard the man calling after him, “But wait! You haven’t finished your peas yet! We mustn’t let them go to waste—everyone must consume their share!”
The look on O’Brien’s face was positively defiant as he turned around on the front step and slammed the door shut. After a slight moment of hesitation, he curled his slender fingers around the metal of the man’s Key. He gave it a sharp jerk. Enough of their mindless small talk! Enough of their identical pigtail-bobbing children! Enough of their perfectly measured portions! An explosion of color flared before his eyes as he pulled: a white light flashed; the signal above the doorknob changed from red to green. A few seconds after the smoke cleared, he took a tentative step forward and peered in the window. The family inside had vanished; they had been erased along with their belongings when the Key became unplugged. Left in their place was only the empty shell of a house and four barren walls. “That’s what they get for being so blind to the truth,” O’Brien thought.
He let the man’s Key drop lifelessly to the ground as he took his own out of his pocket. A poisonous idea had entered his mind, and there was no way to escape it. He hadn’t been in his childhood home ever since that fateful day The Police knocked on the door and forcibly handed him and his mother a Key, instructing them to “get out and find a green light.” That was a long time ago—before The Government had added the last forty stories to its building and before equality slogans had been plastered on every street corner. His mother was dead now. The Police had killed her for giving a pregnant coworker a piece of her bread at lunch when O’Brien was sixteen. The last words they told her before she died were, “Redistribution is unnecessary when society is equitable to begin with.”
Slowly he slid his Key into the empty slot and held his breath for what would come next. Another explosion? The arrival of The Police? Instant death upon entry? Would anything even be inside???
In fact, nothing happened except the customary “ding” as the light switched from green to red. With an immense sigh of relief, O’Brien twisted the knob and walked through the front door. Instead of his standard Government-furnished house, he was somewhere different.
A glitch in the system! A way past The Government’s impenetrable defenses! He had found it at last!
The first thing he noticed was the smell of homemade mac and cheese that permeated the living room (baked with extra cheddar exactly like how his mom used to make it). As he glanced around, he realized that everything was exactly how he had left it that unfortunate day forty years ago: the family portrait still hung crookedly above the mantel, the third step on the stairs still creaked, and the bottom of the right curtain was still singed from the time he accidentally held a birthday candle too close to the fabric. Looking in the garbage, O’Brien saw the remnants of last night’s (or four decades ago’s?) dinner. “Even the junk is still here,” he marveled.
A sharp knock at the front door brought him back to his senses. O’Brien peered out the window and felt his heart sink at the sight of two uniformed Police officials dressed in the customary navy blue of The Government. They had come to make him pay for his crimes, just as they had come for his mother.
“Sir, what are you do—”
His question was cut off mid-sentence when he saw the official reach for the Key still stuck in the door and grasp it firmly with a wicked smile. A sense of panic set in as O’Brien realized what was about to happen.
“Wait!” he yelled as he pulled open the front door and jumped out onto the front step. “We can negotiate!”
“Citizen, murder is non-negotiable. Our City is built upon the principles of equity, and killing another family is the ultimate assertion of power over someone else. I’m afraid there is no other alternative.”
The official tightened his grip on The Key and pulled it out with a jerk. In front of O’Brien’s very eyes the flash of white light went off again as his childhood home vanished—mac and cheese, creaky step, garbage and all. A moment later when he turned back around, he saw the receding figures of The Police already well down the street, the dark outline of his Key in their hand. A gradual sinking sensation overcame him as the gravity of the situation set in. The Police had taken away his Key, the only connection he had to his identity in a City of “EQUITY THROUGH EQUALITY.” Without it, he would be nothing but absolutely the same as everybody else.
Declan O’Brien had done a bad thing. A very bad thing indeed.
-- Lydia Chen, 17, is a high school senior at the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey. In her free time, she enjoys pursuing creative disciplines such as the visual arts, dance, and writing. Next year she will begin her undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.