This week, Let’s Get Published is revealing the top finalists and the grand prize winner of our inaugural short story contest.

Today we are pleased to present Another Brick in the Wall, a story by Casey Millette.

Another Brick in the Wall by Casey Millette

Some days he didn’t know why he lingered on the bare patch congested with the remains of all things.

(“The eyes are the windows to the soul.”)

Only when human decency, so tested these days, was at stake he’d remember.

(“Where’d you read that, little one? A fairy tale?”)

Not that his memory was his most faithful attribute. The man dug his paws into the mud and slathered it across cold. There was no more cement; they’d run out over a fortnight ago, and the sticky paste was a weak substitute that only worked because it would freeze solid.

(“No, silly goose!” [He recalled this moment most vividly; it was the first and last time his daughter’s thin, sweaty lips called him a goose, and a silly one at that. Where did she pick up on this stuff? He’d noticed her vocabulary beginning to mature. How long before silly goose became shitty bastard?] “It was an optic. Before I absorbed my glass of water last night. Before bedtime.”)

It was January, and a lonely one. Holding his breath, he glanced over his shoulder to affirm that he was alone once, twice, three times. Nothing moved but the flies drunk on city steam, dancing by him within maddening centimeters of his reach. It was past midnight after all, so he guessed as much.

“Head home for the night. You need it.”

(“You need to stop watching those optics. You know I think they’re harmful, little one.”)

Not as alone as he thought.

The man felt his employer’s leathery face study him for any reaction. As people were labeled by numbers nowadays, this forgettable person was easily recollected. Mr. Fredrick came from a rather old-fashioned family, and although it was scandalous to keep his inherited lettered name, he’d resisted the pressure. As for the man, he didn’t mind his number; it just bothered him to refer to his daughter that way. So he didn’t.

“We’re projecting only a hundred more tonight, so we don’t have to overdo it this time.” Mr. Fredrick was one of those people who didn’t live up to the grandeur of his name. He was a short, skeletal creature whose greatest danger other than the plague was being blown away by the smallest hiccup.

“And those projections are how old?”

(“But I’m eight-years-old; I would literally be the only one my age that’s not engaged in it.”)

“As of 16:00 this afternoon. And I know you need the money, but. . . We both know you can’t be late.”

“It’s not about the money.” The man manifested a wad of saliva that crackled on the pavement louder, thicker than the rain. “It’s a distraction. More or less. So. . . you will be there?”

“You know I’ll try. This is your daughter, after all.”

The man turned his back on Mr. Fredrick and tentatively looped the wires of a scrub mask over his one and a half ears. He always thought it was a bit pathetic; it’s not like this papery curtain of nylon would do much to shield him from the toxins that prostrated the city. It was an easy disease to catch; the first defining symptom of a plague victim was the blood spouting from the nostrils, then the ears, and the eyes, the brain’s juices leaking from holes punctured through its heart.

Mottled scraps of grass were oppressed by concrete not a mile from his “workplace.” His nose was so used to the acrid fume of rainwater against asphalt that it barely wrinkled when his slip-on sneakers met city street. He slipped through alleyways that wormed their way from the Outside District and into the center of screens, steel, and grey.

 (“It’s only a screen. Somehow you can live without it, I promise.”)

Enormous television-like portals danced with optic advertisements, the lights and voices bombarding lost souls and drawing them in as a distraction from the city’s carcass. The illusion of poisonous fungi prickled in the man’s gut before twisting into a cactus; how was it that developers could scientifically engineer entertainment to make it more addictive, and still couldn’t find a cure for the plague gnawing at their every cell, at their every thought?

The stark building of the CDC reared its glass-windowed head in front of him. The plague, a virus that drilled and infected the brain, had impeded his daughter so badly that they were forced to move on the CDC’s very street, Clifton Road, as its new hospital department had the best chance of a cure than all the rest. Leaving their friends and support system behind had been a risk. His little one didn’t mind, though; it was exciting to live on a street that had the name of her favorite character played through the optics, Clifton, the Little Green Dog.

(“Please, Daddy. Just one more time. You know I love Clifton. Please, please, please!”)

The dust on the floor of his shabby apartment was interrupted with his own footprints. Now that his daughter no longer walked the halls, the apartment was stupendously silent; it settled on his skin like a cold blanket, making him want to scream, laugh, anything just to fill its ravenous belly.

The man crossed his ratty living room to a kitchen strewn with take-out leftovers and newspapers. He absorbed a peanut-butter sandwich, numb, aching for something to make a noise to reaffirm himself that that more than just plague existed; for a cockroach to scuttle across the counter, for a pigeon to screech. There came only the buzzing of the futuristic optics machine, one he’d never used, that intruded on his self-contained world.

(“No.” [Now he’d been stern.] “If the devices I used when I was your age ‘fried brains’, what do you think this crap does to you?”)

He found himself drifting toward the machine. The couch sagged beneath him when he landed on its mossy cushion. He loudly cleared his throat; what was there to be scared about? Everyone was using this phenomenon all over the world and thriving. . . Everyone, except for him. What could be the harm?

He hesitated before slowly coiling the headpiece around his head – An unexpected jerk in his naval told him he was being flung across the room – This was a bloody mistake – No – The warping sensation of music flooding his ears and entering his veins made his heart skip a beat. It was Tchaikovsky. Ah, yes, and there were the canons. Only Russians would think to use freaken’ canons as an instrument. . . But the melody was incomplete. . . Something was off, perhaps mathematically. . . Maybe he was just mental. . . He was beginning to have a searing headache after all. He remembered his daughter complaining of a headache when she first started the process, saying. . . You only had to build up resistance. Bloody resistance. Don’t play for too long, or it would kill your mind.

“Welcome to Optic Ultraviolet Stimuli 3000,” boomed a feminine voice. “Choose your scenario.”

His vision was obscured by several kid-friendly reality games, the one captivating him most was Clifton, the Little Green Dog. . .


He woke up still plugged into the machine.

His head hadn’t stopped hurting since the optics, so he didn’t press his suit. The cloth, though slightly ragged, was the most expensive thing he owned that was still. . . human. He did not think the machine system that people obsessed about as human.

The journey to the “workplace” was shorter than usual, as he was too preoccupied with his head pounding to notice the steam from the rain fusing the city floor and sky into a single slab. He absorbed a pitcher of coffee along the way, thinking the caffeine would bleach his brain into the notion that his head was normal.

The corpses of flowers crunched underfoot as he joined the funeral procession; he wondered how their stock of flowers was right now. . . Mr. Fredrick reported that they only had a hundred more bodies today (the plague’s work), so it should be enough. He wondered which would go extinct first, humans from disease or the flowers for them.

Mr. Fredrick hadn’t come. He recognized the people carrying his daughter’s casket, but not because he knew them; he’d been a headstone fashioner long enough to be familiar with the colors, the long faces. He was relieved when he saw that they’d covered his daughter’s body. The heat filtered forward with the frequency of a fever—was he the only one that felt it? It became nearly intoxicating as the casket was lowered beneath the crumbling crust of earth . . . Hell, did his head threaten to split . . . And his daughter was gone. Her headstone that he himself carved from a chunk of granite gaped at him namelessly, just another brick in a wall of stacked humans, cheap lives wasted on a silly little goose that drilled and drilled into the brain.

He didn’t realize that he was on his knees until he tried to walk. He could feel the goose now, or was it a green dog? A green dog chewing, devouring its way into his center cortexes, into his mind . . . The Tchaikovsky song shrieked on its incomplete rhythm . . . He must’ve been plugged into the machine too long . . . Yes, falling asleep with it stuck inside him would do the trick . . .                                           

He tasted it first. And a bead of red rolled from his nose.

Congratulations to all of our finalists
and to everyone who participated!