I stand at the door, my pack heavy across my shoulders. The two books inside are light, but it’s not their weight that burdens me. I look down the street in each direction, searching the crowd for Auditors.
The traffic flows behind me, so many people constantly moving, jostling, rushing. I press closer to the door, hoping the towel I packed is enough to obscure the shape of the books. If an Auditor finds them, it’ll be over before I have a chance.
Mack promised this would work, that he’d met the man himself—the Glib. A week ago I didn’t know he existed. I knock again, the third time now. No answer.
Is this even the right place? The street-level apartment is completely dark. But if Mack says this is the place, it must be, because he can’t lie. None of us can. Except for the Glib, supposedly, and that’s why I’m here.
The longer I stand here, the more likely I am to draw attention. Why won’t he just open the door? My legs itch with the urge to walk away. But I came here for Jess, and I won’t leave until I get help. I raise my hand to knock again, and the door jolts open a crack, the face behind obscured.
“What did you bring?”
I pull my strap from my shoulder, but a hand snakes out, clamps onto my wrist. “Not where they can see you.” He yanks me into the cool dark behind the door. “What are you, some kind of idiot?”
While I blink in the dim light, the Glib rifles through my pack. The lamp at the end of the long hall casts a reddish glow that backlights my host and makes it impossible to see his face. “Ah-ha!” he says, pulling out the books.
I hold my breath. I have no idea what his criteria are for the books he accepts as payment, and it was difficult enough to find these.
He chuckles low in his throat. “1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Someone has an overdeveloped sense of irony.”
“I don’t understand what you mean. They were the only ones I could find.” The school I broke into was already cleared of books, the library burned. I found these tucked in a dusty backpack in one of the classrooms. At the time, it felt like a miracle. “Are they not good enough?”
I wish I could see him better. With him silhouetted by the lamp, I can barely make out the shape of this mysterious man, and I have only his voice to judge him by. There’s something about his tone that makes me uneasy.
“Relax, I’m joking. I know that’s rare these days, but still.”
I hear a smirk in his voice as he says, “They’re good. I officially accept them. Come to the back.”
I follow him to a windowless room, walled with books. My jaw drops. The Glib ignores my shock and lovingly shelves his two new acquisitions. This much fiction is worth a fortune—and a death sentence. Even before the Beacon went up, the government declared the writing, reading, and possession of fiction a subversive act. Fiction is the glorification of lies. Still, my fingers ache to take one from the shelf.
The Glib turns to me, and my eyes snap to his face. He’s younger than I expected, only a little salt in his close-cropped beard. “So. When did you get your letter?”
“Five days ago.” Just my luck, too. I’ve gone three years without an Audit, though, so it was bound to happen soon enough. You never know exactly when your turn will come, but every few years, you get the letter. And if you aren’t there when they arrive, it goes even worse for you than if they catch you trying to lie.
“Five days? What have you been doing all this time?”
Heat rises to my cheeks. “I had to find the books! It was very difficult—I had to travel to an abandoned town, break into a school. And then I had to come all the way to the city to—” I stop. He’s laughing at me, his shoulders shaking with each juddering snigger. I frown. “What? What’s funny?”
“You just take everything so seriously. I was kidding.” He runs a hand over his beard and shakes his head.
“You’re so…strange,” I say without thinking.
“How so?” His eyes are twinkling, and he’s practically grinning at me.
I frown. “You don’t say what you mean. You’re…” I couldn’t think of a word to describe him.
“Flippant? Disingenuous? Insincere? What exactly do you think glib means, my dear?”
I blush before realizing he must not have meant that either. I’m no more dear to him than he to me. This is going to take some getting used to.
The Glib walks to me, puts his warm hands on my upper arms. “I’m teasing. Back when we could lie, we could tease—just one of the many things the Beacon stole from us.”
“Us. But not you.”
He winks and ambles back to his books. “Ah yes, now we come to the crux of the situation. The Auditors are coming, and you have something to hide. So, you’ve come to me.”
“I can’t teach you to lie.”
The words are claws around my heart. “But—”
He holds up a hand. “The Beacon is unbeatable. Since it went up, no one has successfully told a single lie, and you won’t be the first.”
The way he leans back against his bookcase—it’s almost smug. So many books. I grit my teeth. “Your vast collection says otherwise. If you couldn’t deliver, people would stop paying you.”
His mouth quirks up in a slight smile. “Clever. Perhaps clever enough. Lying is impossible, but I can teach you how to tell something that is—technically—untrue.”
I cross my arms and glare at him, a move I picked up from Jessamyn. “So, that—what you just did—you were teasing me again?”
He winks. “This one catches on quick.” He gestures to the other side of the room, where two arm chairs flank a blazing fire. I choose the one that allows me a view of the door and sink down into it, grateful for the warmth.
“If you got your letter five days ago, we have what, two days?”
I shake my head. “Only one. I need a day to get back.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “No time to waste.” He leans forward. “There’s something you know the Auditors will ask, and if you answer untruthfully, you’ll wig out, they’ll know you’re lying, and it’s off to the gallows you go—am I right?” I wince. He takes that as confirmation and continues. “We’ll concentrate on the answer to that question.”
He explains the task succinctly—I must create a version of events close enough to the truth that I can trick myself into believing it. We begin with visualization. He tells me to play the memory of what happened like a vid in my mind, then change it.
Jessamyn’s face. My little girl. Dirt smeared across her cherubic cheeks, bruises and scabs marring her skin. The chain around her neck. My brow furrows as I try to do what he says, this strange, archaic word—imagine.
I make the chain disappear. Immediately, the Beacon triggers the autonomic response. My throat constricts, my chest grows tight. I can’t breathe.
In my mind’s eye, the chain reappears at Jessamyn’s neck, and my heart sinks even as my breath levels.
Again, again, again. The minutes tick by as I wrestle to believe. Each time, the lie lasts a little longer before my brain admits the truth and the Beacon makes my heart pound, takes my breath.
Finally, I do it. Eyes closed, I see her—barefoot, broken still, but walking freely to my door. I smile. Yes. This is how it happened.
I open my eyes, grinning, but the Glib is deeply immersed in a book. I scowl. “Have you been reading this whole time?”
“No, I’ve been channeling my mental energy into tearing down the Beacon. I think I’ve almost got it.”
I squint at him. “You’re teasing me again.”
“A regular Einstein, you are,” he says with a smirk, then tosses the book to the floor. “So, you’ve got it now?”
I smile despite myself. “Yes, I made the picture, like you said.”
“Good. Now it’s time to focus on verbalization.” His face takes on a seriousness that seems somehow out of place. He pulls his chair closer to mine and looks me straight in the eye. “What is the question you fear?”
“Who is the girl? How did she come here?” The words send chills down my spine.
“What will you say?”
I picture it again in my mind. “She wandered onto my land. She was—a-alone.” But my breathing is ragged, I’m hyperventilating.
“Stop.” The question withdrawn, I’m relieved from the pressure of the lie. My breathing slowly returns to normal. When I have enough air, I curse.
“You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?” But his normally biting voice is gentle.
“I guess I did hope it would be,” I say with a shrug. “You’re sure you can’t just give me some magic lying pill?”
He smiles and squeezes my hand. “Take a moment. Try again.”
I try again. Visualizing, then verbalizing. Each time I get a little further, but each time I eventually trigger the response. I try and try and try, until my chest aches and every breath cuts through my lungs like glass. Weariness soaks in with each passing hour.
After what feels like my hundredth unsuccessful attempt, I shudder and lean back in the chair. The fire in the hearth long ago turned cold, and the clock on the wall tells me morning has come. “I need a break.”
The Glib looks at me through bleary eyes. Tears of exhaustion and frustration course down my cheeks. He pats my hand awkwardly. “We’re out of time, dear. I think it’s time to throw in the towel.”
“What?! No!” But he’s already standing, walking away from me.
I leap to my feet. “You can’t give up on me! You’ve succeeded before, haven’t you?”
He turns, and I see a little of my own frustration mirrored in his eyes. “Yes! I don’t understand it. If you tell yourself something enough times, eventually you’ll believe it.” He runs his hand through his graying hair and paces the room. “It’s worked every time in the past—maybe because I had more time with the others, or maybe—”
I stomp over, grab his arm, stopping his rambling. “How do you do it,” I demand.
His jaw works, his shoulders rising in a helpless shrug. “I don’t know. I’ve always been able to do it—even before the Beacon went up.”
I stare at him, uncomprehending. “You didn’t have to learn to lie?”
“I don’t lie,” he says, shaking his head. “In the moment I say it, I believe it, even as I simultaneously believe the opposite. There was a term for it, in Pre-Beacon days—cognitive dissonance: the ability to believe two different, conflicting things at the same time. Though I guess, back then, it wasn’t considered an ability.”
A natural talent. I grit my teeth against the unfairness. “But you taught the others. I’m not giving up.” I square my shoulders. “Ask me again.”
The Glib frowns. “I don’t know…”
“Ask me again.”
He glares at me, but finally asks, “Who is the girl? How did she come here?”
I take a deep breath. “She wandered onto my land two years ago, when she was only four. I took her in and raised her as my own.” My chest squeezes slightly, but I take another deep, shaky breath and continue, concentrating on the mental image I created. “I didn’t register her because I was waiting to see if anyone—anyone would—come for her—” My lungs spasm, my heart pounds.
“Stop,” the Glib sighs. But the autonomic response doesn’t calm. Even with the question withdrawn, I can’t breathe. My heart races; blood pounds in my temples; I’m wheezing, every breath costing more than the last. The Glib reaches out, but my knees buckle and I’m falling.
I slump onto the floor, fighting for each breath. The Glib is speaking, but I hear only the rush of blood in my ears and—something else—a pulse that runs contrary to the beat of my heart in a strange syncopation. My sight blurs and I realize—it’s the Beacon, pressing on me, demanding honesty.
“She was a slave,” I croak. The truth washes over me like a tide, a swell of relief cut by an undertow of dismay. My breath returns in tiny gasps, my vision clears. But I’m still struggling. I told the truth—why doesn’t the Beacon release me?
My eyes meet the Glib’s. He grimaces. “I think you’re going to have to tell the rest.”
I shake my head, but I know what he says is true. I’ve pushed myself too hard, told the beginnings of too many lies.
I take a shuddering, constricted breath. “I was outside, pruning my apple trees, when they passed.” The true image flashes in my mind, overcoming the picture of my little girl free that I worked so hard to create. It dissolves like salt in water. “He pulled her by a chain around her neck.”
As I talk, my breath evens out, and my heartbeat slows, little by little. I close my eyes, remembering.
I almost let them walk off my land. He had a legal right to her—Auditors monitor the slave trade and would know quickly if he didn’t. What could I do? But as they walked past, her eyes met mine from behind a wall of ratty, dishwater hair, and in that moment I belonged to her. I ran out to the road.
“Sir!” I called. “How much for your slave?” I choked on the word, but I would pay anything for her. I would give up my savings, my home, my life. Anything so that she would not end up on the block. One so young and lovely, there was only one use they could put her to.
He didn’t even turn. Jessamyn, though, she watched me over her shoulder even as she met his stride, three of her little steps for one of his.
“Please. I’ll give anything you ask.”
“You couldn’t afford her.” He walked on, yanking the chain every time Jess turned back to look at me. But she kept turning, even when he pulled her so hard he brought her to the ground. The fall opened gashes on her knees, and still she didn’t cry out.
I didn’t plan to do it, didn’t even know what I was doing until the deed was done. But there were my pruning shears, sticking out of his back, his blood in the dirt mixing with Jessamyn’s.
“I buried him under the apple trees.”
The Glib nods as I finish my story. He looks older now, someone who has lived lifetimes. Perhaps it’s just the circles beneath his eyes. The truth has freed me from the terrible pressure in my chest, and I draw a deep breath for the first time in hours. The Glib pulls me to my feet.
The man, my would-be savior, looks at his watch and shakes his head slowly. He crosses the room, back to his bookshelves, runs his hands across the spines. His hand stops, and my stomach fills with ice as I recognize the titles. My books.
He’s giving me a refund.
“I’m sorry,” he says, handing them out to me. “I wish I could have helped you.”
Hope falls away as I take the books in my hands. What am I supposed to do with these?
“Why can’t I do it?” I whisper.
He shrugs sadly. “I think it’s guilt. You’re determined to hold yourself accountable. That’s why you can’t believe a story that lets you get away with murder. It’s not all bad—it means you’re not a psychopath.”
“It wasn’t murder.” But the tightness in my chest says otherwise. My breath comes in short gasps, but I refuse to correct my statement. The Glib holds up a hand.
“Quit while you’re ahead.” His words are flippant, but his face is worried. Thankfully, he’s released me soon enough—the Beacon leaves me alone, for now. “We’re out of time. Go home. Do what you can for her.”
He walks me to the door, and I pause. I feel I should thank him, though I leave with less hope than when I came. Instead, the words that come are defensive. “The man was torturing my daughter—he was going to sell her. I did what I had to do.”
The Glib raises an eyebrow. “At least that much, you believe.”
Jessamyn stands next to me, her trembling hand in mine. We can see them coming, even from afar—the dust they kick up is like a storm cloud approaching.
The smell of rotting apples drifts by on a breeze. The trees have grown too big, and so much of their fruit falls to the ground, wasted. I haven’t had the heart to prune them since Jess came.
I look down at her—that angelic face, still half hidden behind a sheet of dishwater hair, though now that hair is combed. Her cheeks, which were bruised and scabbed when she came to me, are now round and ruddy. Instead of rags, she’s wearing her favorite shirt—the one I dyed the color of the sky at sunset. My heart twists. If the Auditors find out who she is, they’ll take her back to that life. I don’t care what happens to me, but I can’t let them take her. I won’t.
The dust cloud is getting nearer.
Anger flashes through me as I think of the week I wasted dealing with the Glib. I could have gotten Jess away, or at least tried. Damn him. Why should he be able to lie, but I can’t? He uses his ability to tease; all I want to do is save my daughter.
She squeezes my hand. “I’m scared, Mamma.”
Jessamyn believes I’m her mother. Because I’ve taught her that.
The Glib’s words seep around the edges of my consciousness. At least that much you believe.
Cognitive dissonance, he called it. Believing two conflicting things at the same time. I’ve been doing it all along—I know Jess isn’t mine, and yet I know she is. Could it be so simple?
The Auditors are at the gate now. There are two of them, a man and a woman, dressed in suits and looking stern. I’m surprised to find that I’m calm. As they approach, I see their faces twisted in confusion; they’re looking at Jess.
Finally, they’re standing at the bottom of the steps. The woman flips through papers, surely searching my file for record of a child. Finding none, she looks up, brows knit.
“Who’s the girl?”
I reach down and lift Jess up onto my hip, even though she’s too old for it. I look the Auditor in the eye.
“She’s my daughter.”