The force fields went up. They were blue and shimmering electric and made every street in our town appear subaquatic. That was the biggest change. The blue light. The aquarium our town became. Life carried on and on and on and on as it had before and would again and again. The Town Hall explained the workings of force fields in news broadcasts where a suited man who looked like a wombat smiled a lot and directed us toward exciting diagrams. The suited man didn’t do a lot of talking in the few colorful moments he had on air. In between his exciting diagrams we caught individual words concerning the nature and the purpose of the force fields. Protection. Safety. Better. Peace. This. Control. Way. Violence. Violence as the alternative to force fields and to pretty blue light. We knew they were lying. Or we thought they were lying and didn’t say anything. It didn’t matter. Even if they were lying we were the ones inside and that was what mattered.
On Activation Day some of us gathered outside at the perimeter with bated breath. Activation Day was very important. For weeks now big trucks had come in from outside carrying construction equipment. Construction workers who would not be allowed to live within the force fields. They did not live here and had not paid to join us. There were no empty homes with space to hold them. Nuclear generators. Particle accelerators and lightning rods and saltwater with the appropriate pH and a single sad priest to bless the force fields. We chattering spectators were kept in a large pen some fifty feet from the perimeter. We could feel the electricity in the air like a gas leak. Potential energy filling the spaces between everything. All of it nervous and frail and very important. As if at any moment someone could light a match and blow the whole thing.
I went with my little brother. I held his hand when the humming started and the priest trotted out from the black van at the perimeter. He was greeted by five soldiers and two engineers in their white plastic domecaps and thick sunglasses. The protestors gathered right outside the perimeter. They were unable to enter because the generators were built very wide and electrified and formed a moat in the dry soil around our town. I cursed at them and picked up some grass and threw it. Anyone would’ve done it. I couldn’t see the protestors’ faces from this distance but I could hear some of what they were chanting: let us in. And: let them out. I bent low to pick up more grass and happened to look away at the perfect time.
The engineers exchanged a look and one of them bent down to fix something low in the grass and then there was a flash of light so bright my little brother went blind. When everyone who still could see looked up we saw the force fields had been activated. Beautiful and blue. Soundproof. Appearing out of nothing. The protestors seemed to have disappeared. I shook my little brother’s arm. He had collapsed and was trying to cry in pain but no longer could. Look! Look at the light! We’ll never leave now! Celebrate! Half of the people around us were feeling numbly at their hopelessly burned eyes. The initial flash had set four houses on fire and baked one family’s Yorkshire terrier alive. The priest had been blinded too but took this as more of a religious calling to some greater vision. He began to thank the force field for saving his soul from the earthly sights of our world. His shaking hands uncorked the holy water hung on his belt and threw it onto the force field. It was vaporized before it even hit the surface. The engineers removed their sunglasses and disappeared into their van. Where to? It wasn’t like they could go anywhere. They seemed to know it too. They just sat there in the car.
Not much changed after the force fields went up. We put all the fires out. My dad was a firefighter and people started giving him tips. He made a lot of extra money like that. We buried the roasted pets and my little brother got a cane. I started a business selling canes for the newly blinded. I would take sticks from my backyard and bake them at the side of the force fields till they were brittle. I was eight years old and eager to make money. I gave half the cash I made to my little brother and he didn’t even do anything to help me.
I think after about a year I started to notice how the force fields changed things. For my first birthday under the force field I got these red shades for my bedroom windows that would catch the sun from the field and throw it back in icy magenta. My first Thanksgiving I cried when I realized Grandma couldn’t join us this year because she was living outside of the force field. We tried to Skype her in but the force field jammed WiFi too. My first Christmas under the force field all of my gifts were from Mom or Dad. Said so on the tag. Dad said Santa couldn’t come in through the force field anymore. The Town Hall was that good. That made me cry too but less than Thanksgiving. I was getting used to it. On rainy days the rain would vaporize off of the top of the force field and mist would swell up around it and I couldn’t see outside.
At first it really messed me up living like that. But I’ve gotten older and I think I understand. I think I know this is better. One day I went out to the perimeter and stood in the same place where my little brother had been struck blind. The priest from before had commissioned the building of a small church right up against the force field and held services every week but I’d never gone until today. He was out fumbling in his garden when I walked up and said hello.
How do you know I’m a boy?
Your steps are heavier. I’m pretty good at this. You’ve got to be. Job like mine.
Why’re you here?
I feel lonely.
Lonely? You’ve got everyone you’ll ever need here!
I know. I know this is all good. Everyone says this is good. But I think I feel lonely in a different way. I think I feel lonely like there aren’t any places left for me to go. Is that the force field’s fault?
The force field protects us. Town Hall says so.
I know that too. But these past couple of weeks it’s been feeling funny. I mean. My life’s been feeling funny. In a suffocated plastic-bag kind of way. I’m older. I should be doing more things. But there’s nothing for me to do except school and hang out with my brother and my friends. I can’t go anywhere. I feel like I’m gonna grow up wrong because I haven’t done anything real.
Everything is real inside the field too you know.
I didn’t say anything for a long time. Then I asked what’s outside?
The uglier world said the priest. You seem like you need to have it shown to you. Go on. He pointed toward the perimeter and I walked to peer through the field. I saw the cracked ground and the desert agave growing in the cracks and the dead birds fried in piles under the field where they had flown and been shocked and plummeted. The peeling metal cars with rotting drivers dried like leather in their seats. All of it crumbling under the sun.
It’s gotten a lot worse said the priest. Since the force fields went up. The climate. It’s happening all over the planet now. Town Hall doesn’t like to talk about it because then everyone would just be unhappy. Sometimes Town Hall uses speakers and tricks in the field. They make it appear rainy or impossible to see through. You see why you’re in here now? Sometimes people come to ask. That’s part of my job. Breaking it easy to people. You’re one of the luckiest people alive.
I backed away. The priest hung his head low. His milky eyes reflecting the blue that kept us all alive.
But what? That settles it. Go home. Don’t tell anyone who doesn’t want to know.
There isn’t anything for me in here. Not anymore.
There isn’t anything for you out there. Son. Please. Don’t make me report you to the engineers. Just go home and wait.
For death or something better. There’ll be something for you here. Some life. I promise you.
That night at home I waited until my parents fell asleep before I told my little brother what I had seen and heard. I leaned on the side of his bed and whispered the truth in his ear. His room had yellow filters on the windows and made the walls look green. I don’t know why he put them up. He couldn’t see it. Maybe it made him feel happier just knowing it was there. I thought he was asleep as I was telling him until I got up to leave and heard him shuddering and trying to cry with ruined eyes.
Sam Bowden is a freshman at Kenyon College, where he also attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers workshop. He wants to double major in neuroscience and creative writing, but we'll see how that goes. A six-time novelist and a two-time decent novelist, he spends most of his time researching fictional slang, teaching beginning piano to elementary-age kids through his local fine arts center, or playing cello. He was recently honored as a Gold Medal Portfolio winner in the 2020 National Scholastic Writing Awards.
Kate Ma is a high school senior from North Carolina who is passionate about music and art. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, playing clarinet and piano, as well as singing (very poorly). She also loves to read and write her own stories, and she had a very severe Wattpad phase during which she published multiple stories that she has now taken down out of embarrassment.