I now had a choice. You would imagine it was an easy choice; I could choose to stay here or take the chance at a better life. In my youth, I would not have even had to take a second to think it over. It is the luxury that many of us have in our younger years, that veneer that we think makes us indestructible. Many would say that you have nothing to lose, and it is an argument that has been put forward many times. But you always have something to lose, most of all, your life. I decided to sleep on it; why rush such an important decision? I could decide tomorrow and then either go from there or stay where I was. Those were my two choices, but at least I now had a choice. My future was, for once, back in my own hands.
The Mutt followed me as I left the building. I wanted to get away from the area as quickly as possible. The offer had been made far more quickly than I had possibly imagined. I did not want to cause any problems and have it withdrawn. The walls in these parts of the UK have ears, the roofs have eyes, and the streets often follow your scent. You can feel you are being watched when nobody is around. Your words can be used against you when you think they were said in private, and you are often found when you think you have left no trace. Money was available for nothing unless it helped the state. CCTV still worked and watched our every move. Informants preyed upon those with loose lips. It was another way to make money, and everyone wanted cash. Even in the best times, people were always willing to sell what they could. Especially when they thought it would bring no harm upon themselves. It was another byproduct of the lockdown times; neighbours were encouraged to grass on each other. Once these things have entered the system, they are hard to eradicate.
My home stood as it always did. The sign on the outside had the message, “OTIN: Home is Heart,” flickered on ancient illuminated LEDs. Home, Ha! It is more of a hutch. Mine sat in the middle of a row of twenty-five such hutches. Row upon row had been built, and each had an illuminated sign displaying a different OTIN message. The boxes were twelve-foot square and self-contained; everything you needed to live the most simple existence was inside. The rows above ran to twenty lengths and above that fifteen. They grew that way until the penthouse hutch at the very peak. The towns were rebuilt and rearranged into circular havens with these triangular pyramid-like hutches encircling them. Larger ones were on the other side of the town for families. Those have gotten rarer and rarer in times; people can’t afford to breed. You still hear children’s laughter from time to time or a baby crying, but it is a noise you quickly forget.
Towns with Happy Homes had become villages, maybe even hovels of huts for the population. The towns grow from the centre, and the closer you are to the middle, the safer it is. Reverting to some old-fashioned system, in the centre lived the guardian. Different regions have different names, be it Mayor, Lord, Guardian, or Gatekeeper; they all amount to the same thing. In the centre is the King of the town, then come the factories and upper-class shopping districts. Happy homes are next, and finally, the low-class slums and pleb areas. Outside of that are the outlands, and the outlands will come later.
My neighbours would be out and dosing themselves with Smiloxitin; in times gone by, I would have been doing the same. I pushed my finger onto the scanner and waited for the door to open. “Rejected,” the robotic voice said. I grabbed the corner of my black coat and rubbed it on the sensor. Cursing, I rubbed my thumb on my trousers and then replaced it on the sensor. “Good evening,” the voice said, “Mr David Hopkins,” in a disjointed manner. The voice seemed to be worse than the very best of systems from times gone by. Everything was done on the cheap when it involved the population. For OTIN, it was the best, but for us, the underclasses, it was the cheapest they could get. The door slid open with a creak, and I walked to the small room and threw my coat onto the bed.
Happy Homes were introduced in 2030. The solution to the housing crisis, they had said. It did solve the problem, but who wants to live in a twelve-foot square room? Like many solutions, it led to problems beyond the obvious. Happy Homes became the minimum acceptable. Quick and easy pre-fab boxes that could be placed and stacked almost anywhere. Heat pipes were laid first, along with electricals, plumbing, and communications, and then the boxes were placed on top. They would regulate the heating for all, controlling how warm you were. So those who lived higher up had the cheapest heat. Heat rises, after all. This is just another of the ways they divide the population. Saving you money, they said. Self-regulated and state-controlled for the poorest in the union. Housing benefits were cut and then abolished; who needs to rent when the state can provide you with a Happy Home? Pounds plummeted, the housing market collapsed, and the only ones who could afford a house now were the rich and powerful. The irony is that many landlords and homeowners voted for OTIN, but nobody was left to speak out when they came for them.
The TV was on, as it always was. Mandated to be hardwired in the Happy Home and on all the time. Pinned to the wall and with sensors to avoid coverings. There was a five-grand fine for those caught disabling or covering the screen. Nobody in a Happy Home could afford it, so covering the screen would mean destitution. We can still lower the volume for now, though I am sure that will change. After all, what is to stop them? OTIN: Building back for a better tomorrow. Happy Home, Happy Life. The screen displayed various nonsense fed directly into the houses from OTIN. It would cycle through different slogans and catchphrases throughout the day and night. I made myself a coffee and sat on the edge of the bed. I’ve learned to ignore the screen. I am sure it still has an effect, but it is just a light in the corner of the room.
We all have something to lose. The real question is, are you willing to risk losing it? For some, it might have been their Happy Home. For others, a job or a partner. I was willing to risk all that; I was prepared to lose all of that. I was even happy to lose my life. I had in the past considered suicide; I had been very close to ending it all. I did not realise that suicide takes a massive amount of courage. It takes balls the size of a fucking mountain, colossal massive things. Never let anyone tell you any different. It has been said that suicide is a cowardly way out; it is anything but! Maybe it is how I am wired, but I always found an excuse to stop. If it were pills, I would think, what if it goes wrong and I am left alive, but even more broken? Hanging myself, I could envision the rope breaking, along with my neck and then either being found or dying over days and days. Crippled, or a long slow mental death. Rotting away in my Happy Home, only to be discovered when I stank more than the surrounding areas.
We all have something… I will risk losing something that I have already lost. I have not seen my children in three years; after their mother left with them, I have been caged and alone. Happier times and when we could afford it. But, paradoxically, it also led to me breaking free. It was then that I quit Smiloxitin. It was then that I danced with death and salsaed with suicide.
Breaking free from any drug is hard. Ripping yourself from the clutches of a mind-altering one is incredibly tough. Tearing your mind from the clutches of Smiloxitin is a nightmare. Maybe it was designed to be so addictive. I would not be at all surprised. All drugs have a comedown, and all of them have withdrawal symptoms. I lowered my dose at first but then went cold turkey. The headaches came and were quickly followed by the shakey train. My frontal lobe felt like I had a man with a jackhammer whom I had offended digging away. My hands started to shake, and soon after, my whole body. I could not write or do anything that required any precision. I looked like an escaped jelly from a mould whenever I ventured to the toilet. I had to sit down to piss; if I did not, I decorated the tiny room. My knob would shake around like a water sprinkler that was over-pressured. Then came vomiting and diarrhoea; if it was not escaping my body from one end, it was gushing from the other. The dry heaving followed and was coupled with the fear of farting. My stomach would retch, and I would shake to the toilet. Kneeling over the bowl as my guts tried to throw up what was not there, usually followed by the escape of wind and the realisation that I had not shit myself this time. But, there was always next time to look forward to. The next time when I could erupt like an over-heated volcano from either end. Maybe even both!
The realisation of what the drug had been blocking is worse. It was like the special features on an old movie disk. I was seeing the world without the effects laid over the top. I was finally noticing what the country had become! A fog had been lifted, and the things the drug had withheld from me were now visible. The nightmare of reality was in many ways worse than the withdrawal. The headaches, sickness, shits, sweats, and shakes were something I knew would pass. The nightmare of the world as it was would be etched in my mind forever. It would forever be a lingering scar, scratched across my memories, because I chose to take the drug and ignore the reality of life.
That is why I have chosen to move on and take the risk. I had waited here for three years. I had planted myself in one place in the hope that my children would come back. I can’t change things here; I do not have, nor ever will have, that power. I have to resign myself to not seeing my children again; I can’t continue living like this. I have to move on and build a better life for myself. If I ever see my children; I must have made more of myself! I must be more; I have to be more for them!
The following morning I packed my bag and stepped outside. I blinked at the sunshine and turned to my Happy Home. My final goodbye to the only thing physical thing that tied me here. I’d miss it in many ways. It had given me some security, but I was looking forward to moving on. Familiarity can be a robust chain that holds us back. A deadweight that weighs you down. Accepting what is and what isn’t can help; I had long been pining for the past and hoping for a better future. I needed to grab that hope by the balls and go for it myself. Sometimes I need a push with things, and understanding the world was the kick in the arse I needed.
I closed the door and noticed the dog was lying under my solitary window. It lay curled up with its dark fur absorbing the early morning sunlight. I bent over and gave him a pat and a stroke. He rolled over onto his back, and I continued to rub his belly. “You can’t come,” I said to him. I knew that I would relent if he followed, and I had a feeling he would follow. It was just something I knew deep down inside. Was I the master of the dog, or was he of me? The dog had been used and was now, it seemed, unwanted. He must have followed me home, hoping to find a new friend. “I don’t even know how I am going to get there,” I said to him.
Petrol was a luxury; cars even more so. Public transport, ha, that was a joke. It had long been curtailed and deemed too expensive for society. I could have cycled, but my bike was in disrepair, and I wanted to get going. I know what I am like; I have to do it when I set my mind to something. Suppose I stop and think; I back away and start to find reasons to stop. See the talk of suicide for an example. So I started to walk. The dog watched me as I walked away; he looked at me like the homeless looked at the drug stores. Vacant, longing, and unsure of their next move. I probably looked the same to him.
The town behind me, along with the dog that followed at twenty paces, I entered the outlands. I was going to wave goodbye to the Bridge District, but I saw no point. I had good memories of the place but also awful ones. I wanted to move on quickly. The outlands can be a dangerous place. They are also quite beautiful. The population cramming into smaller areas has left the outskirts free from human interference. The speed that wildlife and fauna take back what humanity once stole is breathtaking. The colours flooded the trees to either side of the road, which was now brimming with leaves and branches. The branches stretched like a person in a bed to hold hands over the potholed road.
That was the other problem with any other form of transport. When just about every road outside of the towns resembled a teenager’s face with acne, I had little choice but to walk. Planes, trains, and automobiles are all still very real, but every single one is out of reach for your average person. But still, out of the darkness comes light, and the lack of fossil fuel being burnt has given the planet a chance to repair itself. The golden, red, and orange leaves that had started to fall from the trees scattered the road as I walked. The colours merge into one perfect patchwork blanket of autumnal beauty along the floor. We forget, well I certainly do, what a beautiful and wonderful world we inhabit.
I kicked at the leaves as I walked, knocking them up and into the air, and I watched them fall back to the ground. It made me forget what else was out there. I’ve always loved nature, but I forget it when cooped up in industrialised areas. The shows we have pumped into our Happy Homes are always set in towns or buildings. It feels pretty silly now, but it becomes a blur when you do not see the world outside the havens. It becomes a holiday you remember but do not think about until prompted. I suppose that is why TV is filmed that way. If you do not see it, then it fades into the background. It was on purpose, I am sure, but it is clever. I’d not thought about it or noticed it before. That was the point.
I walked for miles. I followed the road where I could, and if it became too overgrown or dishevelled, I would go around. The dog followed me every step of the way. The further we got from the town, the more confident he became. A dog will do what it wants, but for now, I decided I needed to give him a name. It was probably a mistake and something I will regret. I will form an attachment to him now; when he was mutt or dog, it was easy to be impersonal. Now he is Dave, Dave, the dog. I have never been good with names; can you tell?
We walked until dusk, and then I found a slight parting between some trees and away from the road. I removed the pop-up tent from my bag and shared some dried meat I had packed. Supplies would always be a problem, but it would be worse now that I was feeding two. But still, Dave had made me his, so what else could I do? I pitched the tent and wrapped myself in a couple of blankets. Dave came in to join me half an hour later; I had made the right choice; if nothing else, he was an excellent source of warmth.