Prompt: Someone makes you an offer you can’t refuse. You refuse.
Those five streets always sounded like there was a train just under them, something clicking rhythmically against the tracks. I never saw a station anywhere, but after compartmentalization I was out of the loop. There didn’t seem to be much point to reading the news from different compartments or looking at their layouts when nobody was allowed to visit them.
My name’s Paul 5. There are twenty-four other Pauls in this compartment, but I’ve been told I’m the sixth handsomest. I’m number one in volleyball, but our compartment doesn’t even have a beach, so I can’t prove it. It would take a revolution just to get me in view of the ocean. No, instead I have the walls of the compartment called Digital Delight. They’re light blue. It’s not a bad color.
Those five streets are the market district, where you can pick up just about anything. I needed some new reeds for my clarinet, so I was walking to the music store. Everything was in order. The white streetcars moved like clockwork. The little copter drones, small as hummingbirds and just as quiet, caught any litter before it even hit the sidewalk. Every pedestrian wore the scheduled fashion for the day: a collared shirt with a primary color vest. That included me.
Most of us, also including me, wore big headphones to keep out unnecessary noise. There was some lovely approved music on our local channel, and I couldn’t help tapping my feet as I got closer to the music store. It was my fault. I missed a step in my little dance and scuffed my nice white shoes. That scuff. It reminded me of something from my childhood, before we got boxed and split and given numbers to keep us out of trouble.
There used to be sounds like that scuff in my music. I know a scuff doesn’t have a sound, it’s just a hundred tiny gray scratches, but that description has a sound, and I remembered it. Record players. People used to play with the needle. Make scuff sounds. Put it in the music. Why did I never hear that in my headphones? That’s what I was wondering when the automatic doors and the blasting air conditioning welcomed me into the music store.
My reeds were way in the back, as not too many people played in the local orchestra. The front was dominated by personal media players on display racks in various primary colors. That scuff on my shoe and in my head distracted me. I ran right into the terms and services! Needless to say I was embarrassed. I apologized to the floating digital screen for smudging it. The agreement was the same as always. I could shop at the music store as long as I agreed to all the things listed.
Every store had terms and services, and you clicked the little ‘I agree’ box every time you entered. That scuff in my head. That scratch. My life skipped a beat. It occurred to me I’d never read the terms and services all the way through. It was just so long and boring. There was a second box. I couldn’t not accept.
Or could I? Everybody in the compartment did. Was it… wrong to refuse? Why would they put it there then? My finger stretched out toward the second box. An employee of the music store, a big man carrying a box, stopped when he saw me. He lunged at me, suddenly furious. He spilled the personal media players everywhere. More scratches. More scuffs. My finger slid across the second square with a joyous squeal. An X appeared. I’d done it! I’d refused! It truly was possible. The terms and services turned an unfriendly red. An alarm sounded and the floor opened up beneath me. I tumbled down, and the poor employee came with me.
I understood halfway through the dark chute that I was leaving my compartment. That sound I always heard under the market streets… It wasn’t a train. It was a beat. Constant. The music of that compartment, like the big white headphones of mine. We’d landed in a pile of bandannas. They weren’t manned by a merchant; there was simply a sign posted next to them labeled free threads.
I grabbed at one because it was my favorite color: #bf0b4d. That’s what it was called on the color chart back in my apartment. We had to use it every morning to figure out if our wardrobe for the day was in the approved part of the spectrum. It was different this time. It was the same rosy magenta as always, but it was on thin worn fabric. It had a stain or two. Now it was a color that had lived. I wrapped it around my wrist and ran around the new compartment, the run quickly turning into a dance.
This place was hopping. It was all scuff marks. Buildings made of old wood. Buzzing lamps on swinging chains. People just sitting on chairs in the street, playing music along with that train-track beat. What I would’ve given for my clarinet. This music didn’t need anybody’s approval. It didn’t have to go through the board or the computers. People were just making it up as they banged on buckets and plucked strings attached to all sorts of things. I had to duck under a few clotheslines before I realized they were just more instruments. Hitting them, knocking myself down, would’ve just been one more scuffed note in the song.
All the people of this compartment looked so happy. Dark or pale, young or old, they all had the same big white teeth clacking along with the beat. This was how they lived all the time. Scuffing everywhere. They couldn’t have streetcars because people just walked across the orange brick streets whenever they wanted. I was about to join in when a hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around.
“You refused the terms of service!?” the music employee hissed. His face was much redder than the sanctioned red of his vest. I wondered if that counted as a violation. Certainly not enough of one to get you thrown out into the dark cracks between compartments, where the outcasts were flattened before they rotted away. “I can get fired for that! Where… where is this? Oh god. The lights are flickering. It smells like soup and street at the same time. Ughhh…” He dry-heaved. Nothing came out, but I still stepped back to protect the nice scuff mark on my sneaker from his dripping bad attitude.
“Yeah, I refused,” I said, my smile growing to match that of the locals. They cheered me on. “I think this is my new compartment.” They cheered again.
“No!” the red-faced guy bellowed. “You have to come back with me and accept the terms… and… the… services! We have them so our compartment doesn’t wind up like this one!” the crowd booed him. “I always accept. It’s just the right thing to do!” I pulled away.
“I’m not going back. As long as we have to live in compartments, I pick this one.”
“You don’t get to pick!” He chased me through the streets, hands outstretched like raven claws. I kicked a bucket in his way to trip him, but he was catching up. I think he actually did all of the recommended workouts in our compartment. I didn’t think anybody did those. I admit, good old Paul 5 was worried. This angry guy, he looked like a Johnathan. Probably a 23 or a 21. You know the type. He wasn’t going to give up. It had me terrified that I’d be dragged back, kicking and screaming. Now there was no way I could hear that beat under those clean streets and not want to scratch the tiny sensitive parts of my ears out.
Luckily, this compartment was much friendlier. People got in Johnathan 23’s face. They shoved pieces of paper in front of him covered in scrawl.
“This is our terms and services,” one of them chuckled. “You never turn these down remember. Better sign.” They shoved pencils into his hand. He hastily checked off any boxes he could see and tried to pursue again. He couldn’t. He didn’t read what they’d hastily written. When you agree to their terms and services, you can’t hurt anybody. You can’t take them anywhere they don’t want to go.
Such a shame. I just figured out how to rebel, and now I had to sign on to something else. Oh well. When I did they tossed the paper away for others to step on and handed me an old clarinet with a few scratches of its own.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by gamekiller48 during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!