George walked along a sidewalk towards his home, as he did most weekdays after work. His neighbor’s motorcycle was parked along the street, as it was most weekdays after work. And a school bus was taking kids back from extended day camp, as it did most weekdays as George was coming home from work. But, unlike most weekdays, the bus lost control. It hit the parked motorcycle head on, throwing it in the air and spinning it end-over-end near where George stood. George froze and sort of smiled at it. He thought this was the answer to his prayers. This was the day he would finally die. But the motorbike flew clear over his head and left him unscathed. His sort-of smile widened in bemusement. He slumped his shoulders and sulked forward as he resigned himself to the extension of his life, and in the same instant felt the bike’s kickstand breeze past the hairs on the back of his head and fly through a mailbox on the other side of the street.
If only he had just stayed still.
The emergency teams came shortly after. This time, George had stayed still, and Millie found him frozen on the sidewalk as she hopped out of the back of an ambulance. She always remembered how nervous she felt. After her years of nurse’s training, George was the first person she treated. Or, would have treated, if he had sustained any injuries. Millie did not see even a scratch on him and figured he was perfectly fine. But her over-anxiety and his stunned silence led to a hospital exam that proved Millie’s initial instincts correct.
George realized over the course of the night that the time had come to do something about his depression. He and Millie established a rapport as they talked. When he asked, she agreed to meet him once a week, on Tuesdays, from seven to eight in the evening, in one of the hospital’s usually-empty offices. Millie was thirty then and George was eighty-three, though his frail frame gave him the appearance of a man even older. She became the only person he felt he could share his story with and he confided in her as he would a peer. To him, her office had the warmth of a living room despite the bright walls and fluorescent lighting.
George had always been introverted and shy, worked hard but did not get ahead, found few friends and never married. He struggled with thoughts of worthlessness. Though untrue, a depressed and paranoid mind aims to believe the least pleasant realities. He felt no one cared for or listened to him. The latter was, strictly speaking, true. George grew up at a time when everyone physically did listen. In his teen years, people started shutting their ears off. Yes, they sacrificed music and movies and the benefits hearing comes with, but they escaped the unignorable tragedies of everyday life.
Those years saw the rise of a dystopian politic. Wars and bombings became common as people picked baseless fights over colors and creeds. Water became scarcer as the climate warmed and wars increased further still. People wanted to listen. People wanted to make changes. But they would listen as one party recounted the day’s grim facts and then as a different party refuted those facts and provided new ones of their own. No one could agree on what to believe or how to fix the problems. It became easier to give up, and so people did. They simply shut off their ears and found they rather preferred being deaf. They lived in their own bubbles and scraped by, hoping violence would not find them.
As a result, the empowered families used the distraction and confusion to horde and protect as much of the dwindling water supply as they could. Rumor had it they lived in a region called The Oasis, though no commoner could confirm or even reliably guess where this region was, if it even existed.
Because of all of this, George wanted to die for nearly the entirety of his adult life. But twenty-five years passed since his brush with death before it finally visited at the age of one hundred and eight. Millie thought it odd that death was reluctant to befriend a man who sometimes prayed for it and yet would pluck children away from the Earth as they screamed and waved their hands for just a drop of water to save them. It was because of George that Millie believed in God. Not the benevolent God that the authorities praised, but the sort of God that answered all prayers with a definite, sadistic “No”. The only way to get what you wanted from God was to convince Him (or Her, or It) that you really, sincerely did not want whatever you asked for.
Five years had gone by since George had passed away. Millie still thought about him most days and missed his mildness especially when she dealt with patients she did not like. Theo was such a patient. Or, at least, his friend Trynik was. Trynik was an athletic man in his forties who carried a cavalier condescension and treated all those around him as servants at best and children at worst. He was the kind of man who really, sincerely did not want to listen. Which is exactly why Millie knew God would help her to make someone listen.
Theo’s family hired Millie after his injury. Theo, since given his inherited opulence had no need for work, had been jousting with Trynik in the middle of a Thursday. The game became quite competitive and ended with Trynik lancing Theo through the abdomen. Some bystanders managed to slow his bleeding but his family immediately sought to hire the best wound-care specialist in the land.
In fact, Millie was not the best. Certainly she excelled at her career, but she knew two colleagues who possessed broader skill and deeper knowledge. Naturally, the family contacted these colleagues first. Both refused to serve. They resented the lifestyle of the idle rich, whose arrogant disregard of the rest of the world disgusted them. Children and young adults in poorer neighborhoods often died of dehydration; few lived to middle-age. Millie’s colleagues felt called to serve those troubled communities.
Millie shared those sentiments to a degree but would not let anyone suffer on account of politics. When she received the call her colleagues urged her not to go, pleaded with her to decline. She did not entertain the discussion and Theo’s family sent a limousine for her that day.
Except for the LEDs in the back of the limo, familiar scenery surrounded her journey. Grey, barren land stretched from the road to the horizon. The cloudy sky did not offer much in the way of comparison. Groups of people took shovels to the cracked ground, seeking streams of groundwater. Their sweat made their white cotton shirts almost see-through.
The bleak landscape did not change for the duration of her trip. She had heard rumors of Theo’s opulence, but started to doubt them as the town loomed closer. Dusty windows on crumbling buildings belied stories of luxury. She could see people shoveling at the ground, seemingly as parched as everyone else.
The limousine slowed near a group of shovelers. Millie heard them ask for ID and the drivers showed licenses and registration. Once satisfied, the shovelers stood aside and the limousine rolled through. The cracked ground at once came together and a cropped lawn appeared. Millie could see now that the group that admitted them were not shoveling. They stood in a semi-circle around the edge of the grass tapping the ground with their staffs, gesturing incantations, shielding their Eden from outside eyes.
Millie’s limo parked in front of a tall building she had seen on the horizon, though she noticed now the building was constructed of perfectly polished marble; she could not see any of the cracks she had seen from miles away. She marveled at the pristine sidewalks edged by manicured lawns and budding flowers. She started to fall to a knee to smell a rose (she had never seen one before!) but her drivers hoisted her by the arms and directed her past the fountain, through the entryway, and into an elevator.
Millie wished she could share with George what she saw. George’s generation only heard of disparity and greed before they stopped listening. Millie was actually seeing The Oasis. Her drivers, the magicians at the gate, Theo – all of these people subscribed to the concept that their wealth was owed them. They unashamedly gave themselves everything at the expense of innocent children starving and dying. Millie thought that if she carried the torch of the Lady with the Lamp, perhaps it would be best for the world to turn off the lights too.
The elevator doors opened. Two guards guided Millie through oak double-doors and down three marble steps into Theo’s loft. A burly man with short blond hair stood to meet Millie.
“Welcome, Millie. Trynik.” He paused his signing and extended his hand. She shook. “He’s this way. Hurry, he’s starting to fail.”
Theo shivered under a thin white blanket, a crimson circle highlighting the edges of his bandage. A heart rate monitor showed ominous indicators. He took shallow and infrequent breaths.
Trynik gave Millie a smug, expectant look. He had not been denied much in his life and now, even in a dire situation, Trynik knew Millie could make the improbable happen; he had all the money in the world, and he had overpaid for the result.
“You will save him, won’t you?” Trynik did not ask the question but stated it.
“I will try.”
Trynik glowered and walked to a winged chair in the corner of the room and sat, surveying Millie. She hooked up IV fluids to him and pulled away the bandage to reveal a gaping wound. She cleaned it and carefully began suturing him together.
After a few hours, the bleeding fully stopped. Although Theo never awoke his indicators improved and stablized. Millie knew that he would not wake for another day until his body recovered from the shock and from the seditives, but she thought his chances favorable.
Millie looked towards Trynik, who gave a contented smirk. She sat near Theo’s bed and looked out the window. The setting sun reflected red light off of a lake near the center of the town. Some men appeared to be fishing in it. Millie had never seen this much inland water in all of her life and nobody knelt down to drink it. The town had a surplus wasted solely on sport.
She felt a tap on her shoulder. “Will he survive the night?” Trynik signed. Millie paused before nodding her head once. “We have a room for you upstairs. You can rest there when you like.” She asked instead for a rollaway cot so that she could keep a vigil over the night.
She lay awake thinking of her colleagues’ pleas with her to stay in the town and refuse. She had been deaf to their reason, blind to reality. They sent a car so as not to send directions. No one she had met had ever spoken of The Oasis; she was sure Trynik would not let her be the first. She would live only as long as it took Theo to heal. They would silence Millie so the secret could never escape.
The night passed, and Theo remained moreorless stable. Trynik returned early the next morning, and Millie was already awake, if she had ever slept.
“How is he?” Millie stared, silent. Trynik repeated the question.
“I can save him, but under one condition.” Trynik’s smirk faded away from his face. He welcomed challenges but hated ceding power. “I will make him hear again.”
Trynik threw his head back and smiled. Millie’s blank expression remained unchanged. “You are here to serve, not to bargain.”
“I came offering my service, yes; not my life.”
Trynik smiled again and left the room, returning a few minutes later with a fountain pen and a leatherbound checkbook. He filled a check with Millie’s name, the date, and his signature, then sat next to her and proffered it to her. “Write whatever amount you like.”
She held the check in her hands for a few moments before handing the pen back to Trynik. She tore the check into eight pieces and threw the bits into the air. “A dead woman cannot be bribed.”
She removed a scalpel from her bag. She began cutting away Theo’s stitches. Trynik grabbed her arm and tried to wrest the instrument from her, but she spun towards him and shoved it near his throat. “You will see me die either way. Make this deal.”
Trynik put his hands in the air and backed away in surrender. He could have won in a fight, but he could not risk upsetting Millie if Theo’s condition worsened. He motioned for her to lower the scalpel, then walked towards Theo and placed his hands on his face. He gestured an incantation and waited, but Theo did not react. Even in his weakened state, his strength and will not to hear overmatched Trynik’s magic. Trynik motioned for Millie to join him. She gestured the incantation with him. Theo did not waken, but he grimaced and brought his hands towards his ears.
Trynik turned his back on Millie, his shoulders slumped in defeat. He left the room and did not return until the following morning, when Millie signalled to guards in the next room that Theo had awoken.
Two guards escorted Millie to the basement of the tower where she was tried for disobedience and attempted murder. Without any allowance for defense, she was directed to a waiting cell to await her sentence.
While Millie waited in her soundless, sightless room, Theo left the tower for fresh air. His mind struggled to place new sounds with familiar sights: wind rustling through grass, the splash in the lake as a fisherman cast his line. He heard something high-pitched, too, something he could hear in the distance but not see. As he limped towards the outskirts of the town he saw young children screaming in pain, digging at the ground for water. Flies gathered around a small body, sometimes landing unflinchingly on an open eye.
Theo had never seen this before and felt anger at the injustice. He stumbled to the center of town and retrieved a bucket of water before returning to the shoveling children. Their cries stopped, and they looked up in amazement at their hero. Even for a people that had not heard in generations, hope struck the sweetest chord anyone had ever heard.