If you’re reading this message, it’s because it has been successfully delivered to the world outside the city where I live. For years, I have been writing by hand messages about my city. I fold up the paper, hand it to someone on the street, who in turn hands it to someone else. It keeps going and, in theory, makes it to wherever this city ends and reaches you on the outside. If I or the relayers are caught, we will be killed. But we must try and hope that someone will liberate us.
Where I live, the question you’re not allowed to ask is, what city do we live in. As a responsible citizen, if someone asks you this question, you are expected to pull out your issued gun and shoot them directly between the eyes. Even if it’s right out in the open, on a city street amongst crowds of people, or in an eatery, with people face down in tasteless meals of rice and gray chicken. Occasionally, if you’re outside on the streets walking in the shadow of tall beige buildings, or inside your apartment reading issued literature, watching issued television or sleeping, you will hear a gunshot. It will echo. Then you will hear silence or scared birds flapping their wings. Someone whose curiosity has gotten the best of him, or has tired of living, has been killed. Once, I was close to an execution but didn’t realize how close until I arrived home and found my right cheek and ear had specks of someone’s blood.
You must understand that, if you’re asked the question, and don’t shoot the asker, you may be shot by a fellow citizen for not fulfilling your civic duties. Sometimes, you will hear double gunshots indicating that this has happened—one shot for the person who didn’t shoot, one for the asker.
In this city, I live alone and work as a wire cutter. I sit alongside other men my age at a long white table and cut wires into halves. What happens to the wires after we do this is uncertain. We get fifteen minutes to eat a somber, issued lunch that is always a gray, tasteless mush in a plastic cup. Then, after ten hours of work, we leave and return to our apartments, alone.
There are rumors that there are some people living amongst us who know the city’s name. They know the name, but are not allowed to repeat it under penalty of death. Supposedly, they are guardians of the name. This seems like a terrible burden.
You might wonder why, since everyone has a gun, why we don’t just rebel. It’s not that simple. If we are caught rebelling, we are imprisoned for life, and our families are executed. We are continually reminded by issued television broadcasts that the police have powerful weapons—automatic guns, helicopters, missiles.
Lucky for me, I had spent my thirty years of life walking the streets with my head down and not being asked this question. That is, until today. Walking home from work, an old man with scant gray hair and heavily wrinkled face stopped before me and asked. His eyes were a sad blue. I clenched a fist and held it at my chest. There was no way I could take this man’s life. I stared at him briefly and walked away without answering. My heart jumped as I waited for that gunshot that would end my life. But it never came. I defied the law, more directly so than with the written messages, and survived.
Since we don’t know where we live, it is hard for me to tell you how to find us. I have not seen the city’s limits. Where I live, there are many identical tall buildings. On a summer day, the sun will move between them at dusk and illuminate many windows, creating a blinding streak of light. There is a small lake that is three blocks from where some of these tall buildings are. There are police officers walking the streets carrying rifles and eyeing up the normal people, nudging us along when we pause.
We hear rumors of your outside world. Where everyone is free and there are amazing things like open grass fields, loud rock concerts where people dance and sing, and beaches where the sun toasts your skin and salty waves roar against the sand.
I hope that your world exists. I feel that with each passing day, I am closer to it. Someday soon, I will be there.