The Letter

Joseph Campbell

 

“Where’s Jim today?” Kevin asked as he sat down. The three other boys at the table said nothing. They stared at the trays in front of them and concentrated on the mashed soy in their mouths. In a room full of the buzz of conversation, this was a dead spot. “Ulee, where’s Jim?” Kevin asked again.

 

Ulysses looked up, his eyes, gray like the jumpsuits they all wore, were watery. He shrugged the halfhearted shrug of someone saying “I don’t know” as a defense. He looked away again, quickly. That’s when Kevin noticed that everyone else in the cafeteria was busy not looking at their table. He felt them all paying rapt attention without showing it in any way.

 

“What’s going on?” Kevin asked, again. Kim turned to him, dark brown eyes filled with tears and tried to say something, but merely put his hand on Kevin’s shoulder. He looked away.

 

“He got a letter,” Kim said, the music of the language that he and his parents spoke at home clipping the vowels.

 

Kevin stopped breathing. “A letter about what?” he asked, but he already knew.

 

“A letter from the Doctors,” Kim said. He took his hand of Kevin’s shoulder, as if the very thought of touching another boy while talking about the letter made him dirty.

 

“But—but he’s a football player,” Kevin said.

 

Mark muttered, “Not anymore.” They all fell silent together.

 

“How did you find out?” Kevin asked.

 

“His mom sent me text,” Ulysses said, tapping his forehead just above the implant. “She said he’d be back in school tomorrow, and asked us to collect his assignments. Said he was sick after going to the Doctors.”

 

“Yeah, but that could mean anyth—,” Kevin started.

 

Shaking his head, Ulysses said “She capitalized Doctors.”

 

Kevin was about to protest that it might have been a typo, but he knew that the program autocorrected. That capitalized Doctors could only mean those doctors.

 

“He might be okay,” Kevin said.

 

“No,” Mark muttered, “I’ve seen it before.”

 

They all turned their heads toward him. Uncharacteristically, his eyes weren’t glazed over. He wasn’t navigating webspace like he normally would be while everyone around him talked. He was present in the here-and-now. “Guy I knew a year ago. Nice guy, I guess. He was on the chess team with me. Got a letter just after we won championship. He came back a week later, but all he did was stare off into space a lot. And cry,” Mark finished.

 

“Is it—” Kevin started, then stopped.

 

“What?” Mark asked.

 

“Is it really as bad as everyone says?” Kevin finished.

 

“I asked him about it once,” Mark continued. They all waited. “He said it was horrible.”

 

Kevin’s heart pounded in his chest. He forgot about his food entirely. “What did he say happened?”

 

Mark leaned in and they all huddled closer, heads nearly together. “He said that his parents didn’t tell him anything about it. That his mom took him because his father had something to do. He said that, after, he thought it was because his father knew what was going to happen, and couldn’t deal with it. He said the

Doctor’s pulled him into a little room and explained to him that people used to be a lot different. That men used to control everything by being mean and hurting people,” he was saying, but stopped as one of the servitors, this one designed to look female, passed by. They all moved their heads apart.

 

“Continue food intake,” it said to them, the slightly hollow tone in its voice. Each movement of its arms or legs clicked and buzzed, clicked and buzzed.

 

As soon as it had passed, they leaned back together. “What happened then?” Kevin asked.

 

“He said the Doctors said that they way they had stopped it was by finding a way to make men fear being hurt in that way, too. Thing is, he said the Doctors told him that what really kept men in power was that women and kids could never tell when a man was going to hurt them. That the possibility was always there, so that a system had to be put in place where no men ever knew when something bad was going to happen to them.”

 

“By violence, do you think they meant—,” Ulysses started to say, but stopped himself, the thought too horrible to have.

 

“Yeah,” Mark said, “that’s exactly what they meant. And that’s exactly what they did to him.”

 

“What?” they all asked him in unison then looked around nervously. The servitor’s head swiveled in their direction, but it didn’t approach.

 

“He said the Doctors told him that every year, a few men and boys are picked at random by a machine, and that they have a procedure performed. That he’d been selected. And that they couldn’t stop the pain, but that he should be proud of himself for doing something for his country.”

 

“And then they did it to him?” Kim asked, fear making his eyes wide.

 

“No; he says there’s a machine that does it. He said it was almost worse, though; that it was hurting him and that he couldn’t put any logic to it. The machine didn’t, y’know, feel any desire or anything. It was just doing what it was programmed to do. He tried so hard not to cry, not to let the Doctors see him cry.”

 

The y all avoided looking at each other. It was a while before any of them spoke.

 

“After it was over, he thought maybe someone would congratulate him for living through it and that someone would hug him, but he says instead that they stitched up the tearing, cleaned him up without talking to him and then told him to go. That his mom didn’t ask what happened or anything. She wouldn’t even look at him,” he whispered, his voice quivering some, “he said,” Mark added after a moment.

 

“Did he tell anyone else?”

 

“No,” Mark said, “he never told anyone it happened. He was afraid they’d say that something was wrong with him; that he wanted it to happen or that he liked it.” With that, Mark’s eyes glazed over, and Kevin saw the telltale greenish tinge to them that meant Mark had left to webspace. They all looked away, letting him go, and understanding that there never had been any other kid from the chess team. Though none of them moved, Kevin felt the circle close in tighter.

 

“So, I’ll get Jim’s assignments from Calculus,” Kim said after a few minutes.

 

“Yeah,” Ulee chimed in, “I’ll get them from Linguistics.”

 

They all looked at Kevin, expecting him to say something. He tried to think of some way to beat back the quiet, but found he had nothing to say.

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