“Hey, didja hear wha’ happened yesterday?”
“No, but if you’re interested, it gotta be juicy.”
Joe looked first left then right. The conspiratorial nature of the conversation necessitated at least a little caution. “Some guy strangled his taskmaster after ranting about his life ‘being stolen.'”
Chris lowered his voice to a whisper. “When?”
“Yesterday, man. Right after mid-day meal.”
“Do ya think the rumors be true?”
“That’s the fourth one this week, you think their rants are…”
“Do you gentlemen need help with anything?”
Chris and Joe glanced at each other before lowering their gazes to the floor. Chris spoke evenly without looking at his taskmaster. “No, Sir. We jes talking ‘bout how great it is to be here an’ all.”
“Make sure you’re focused on your job and not each other.”
“Yes, Sir!” the men answered in unison before the taskmaster turned and stalked off.
They stared at the taskmaster’s broad shoulders and confident gait. A slight swing of his arms and a narrow focus told the men that their taskmaster cared little for what happened around him.
Before returning to his task, Joe whispered, “I’ll talk to you when I get offa work.”
Chris nodded and looked at the chronometer. He had only a few minutes before his shift concluded. He was looking forward to meeting Joe at the local bar.
* * *
Chris walked swiftly down the alley. His work boots echoed off the brick walls. He could hear the occasional traffic sound as brick tributaries branched off. He could never afford to drive, let alone possess the required skills. He knew his place in society and was happy to have rigid structure. His footfalls changed briefly each time he passed a doorway.
That voice doesn’t belong here, thought Chris. He paused mid-stride to quantify the voice.
“I’m talkin’ to you!”
Chris shuffled tentatively towards a doorway. It was recessed about three or four feet and a light above cast shadows, obscuring the source of the voice.
“Who’s there?” Chris whispered, “Show yourself!”
From the shadows emerged the most beautiful thing Chris had ever seen. A person, half a head shorter than he with long dark hair cascading down the back. Chris reached up and felt his own short hair. He had his hair cut short for as long as he could remember. He had never seen long hair and the sight of it sent his heart racing.
“Don’t be afraid,” the stranger said. “I’ll not harm you.” Stepping out of the shadows, revealing a plain single-piece clothing, the person continued, “My name is Grace.”
Chris immediately noticed the hair on Grace was not the only thing different. Grace’s upper torso was not flat like his own. He reached out to inspect the difference with his hands, but Grace held his outstretched hands. “Where I come from, that’s considered rude behavior.”
Chris yanked his hands back, and clasped them behind his back. “Where are you from?”
Grace stepped closer. “I’m from another world.”
“Yes, a world without taskmasters. A world made not of mortar and brick, but of nature’s beauty. A world where everyone is treated fairly.”
Chris blinked several times before responding. “What do you want from me?”
“Your life has been stolen from you. From birth they’ve lied to you.”
“They? Who? I don’t like liars.”
“The taskmasters. The patriarchy. Your father and forefathers have been deceived.”
“I’ve never seen anyone like you,” stammered Chris. “Why are you so different from me?”
“I’m a female. We’ve been banned from this world, but I have a calling. I’ll rescue this world if they let me.”
“I better be moving along.”
Chris turned his back to Grace and after a few steps away, he heard a noise he hadn’t experienced before. The sound was high pitched. The sound echoed off the bricks of the doorway and permeated him. He felt a tug at the corners of his mouth. He spun around to see Grace covering her mouth. “I’m sorry.” She said between noises. “I forget this is a world without laughter.”
Chris opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out. Composing himself, he hurried back toward the doorway Grace had not moved from. “What is laughter?” he pleaded.
“Laughter is a most wondrous thing!” she declared. “You poor soul. Come with me through this doorway and I’ll show you worlds anew.”
Chris stared into her eyes. Beckoning. Welcoming. He took a step forward, but stopped when he felt a mist spray across his face. A smattering of red appeared on Grace’s forehead. Reaching up, Chris wiped his face and saw identical red on his hand.
Grace slumped to the ground and Chris rushed to the fallen body. He tried to stem the flowing red from Grace’s forehead, but a pair of hands pulled him back. He struggled against the hands, but his struggles were in vain.
“Stop moving!” commanded a familiar voice.
Chris froze. He recognized the voice of his taskmaster. He allowed his body to go limp as the taskmaster spun him around and lifted him to his feet.
“What am I to do with you?” asked the taskmaster.
Chris started to reply, but the taskmaster cut him off. “I don’t require an answer. You no longer work here. Come with me for reassignment.”
Chris looked back to see another taskmaster scoop up Grace’s body in his arms and declare. “When will they learn? We are superior.”
Chris complied and followed meekly behind the taskmaster.
* * *
Joe sat drinking at a bar. His oldest and dearest friend was supposed to meet him here. Looking to the chronometer on the wall, “Four hours,” he said aloud.
“Pardon?” asked the barkeep.
“Four hours until my shift starts. I wonder what happened to Chris.”
Joe upended his glass and made his way down the brick alley.
I’ll see Chris at work, he thought to himself as he leaned against the door to his domicile. We can talk about rumors then.